Two days ago I saw an flash of orange and black flutter through my garden. It was the first viceroy of the year. There is nothing that says ‘summer’ more than watching butterflies take advantage of the breeze and blooms in the summer sun.
Whether you have just a small flower bed or a whole area designated as a ‘pollinator space‘, it’s justifiably satisfying to see butterflies arrive. Do you watch for cabbage whites? Swallowtails? Monarchs? Viceroys?
The viceroy is a beautiful orange and black butterfly with a lace-like wing edge – a very similiar appearance to the monarch. It is elegant and also a savvy deceiver. Most people learn of viceroys in relation to monarchs: the wing pattern is slightly different, the size is a little smaller, they are Ontario natives who don’t migrate, and they are not milkweed-dependent like monarchs.
It has long been known that these species benefit from the frequent mistaken identity. Since monarchs eat milkweed as caterpillars, they ingest the toxins of the plant and while they are impervious to it, they incorporate it’s off-putting taste and toxicity. A symbiotic relationship between monarchs and milkweed makes the monarch unappetizing to predators. Their bright colours may draw attention, but predators know that the butterfly is unappetizing. The viceroy exploits mimicry that offers some additional protection.
The viceroy is somewhat distasteful itself – so this is not a case of a tasty butterfly being protected from predation by visual confusion with the vile-tasting monarch. Instead, they are both distasteful, and have a mutual benefit from looking alike.
But how about for us… those of us looking at the fields and flowers… and spotting an orange and black beauty? How can we tell?
- Have a ‘horizontal band’ of black on their wings that intersects the vertical black lines that both species have. This is the easiest way to tell them apart
- Have a less wide wing span – you have to learn to judge this in relation to their bodies
- The ‘lace’ detail at the wing edges of the monarch are more detailed and smaller than those on the viceroy. Additionally on the top wing (fore-wing) the pattern is more white in the orange on a viceroy as opposed to the black and darker orange on a monarch.
If you are close enough, also look at the bodies from above – the viceroy is fully black while the monarch has white spots on both the head and lower abdomen.
If you are casually watching one, look at how they fly. Monarchs have a distinctive flight that I’ve seen described as a ‘flap, flap, glide’ but I’d describe as a lazy non-directed movement. Viceroys are more flapping and direct – they seem faster and straighter. In some cases the monarch is a deeper orange – but don’t go by colour since there are wide variations between individuals.
Both monarchs and viceroys feed and breed in our warm Ontario summers – and both visit native blooms such as bee balm (monarda), coneflowers (like black-eyed susans and echinacea) and blanket flower (gaillardia).
Watch for the flashes of black and orange … and try to distinguish which of these elegant butterflies you are seeing.
Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here
Butterfly and Moth Guide (Ontario Nature)
Butterflies of Toronto (e-book from ROM/City of Toronto)
Viceroy or Monarch? ( spotting the differences – Journey North/ Lerner.org)
Mimicry – a discussion
Elegant Deceiver ~ © 2018 Natasha G
*Please note that while viceroys frequently fly around Altona Forest’s edges, they refused to pose for me. I took these viceroy photos in Rosetta McClain Gardens in Scarborough (late Aug ’17 – hence the tattered condition of the wings). I only sign ‘My Altona Forest’ to photos I’ve taken in Altona Forest.