Skippers: A Charming Moth-Like Butterfly

Silver spotted skipper on white flower

Skippers are a unique group of butterflies belonging to the family Hesperiidae within the order of moths and butterflies.  

They have several traits that set them apart from typical butterflies in a few ways. Here’s a detailed look at these fascinating pollinators, including their classification, some varieties found in my garden, a few fun facts, and how I photograph these little cuties. Here is why I love them so much!

Classification: Moth or Butterfly?

The first time skippers started showing up in the garden, my daughter and I fell in love with them immediately. We first thought they were moths due to their stout, hairy bodies and rapid skipping flight patterns. But they were very active during the daytime while many moths are nocturnal.

When we do see moths in the middle of day, it’s usually diurnal moths like hawk moths or sphinx moths. Most moths we find during the day are resting or avoiding predators. As moth lovers, we also noticed the skippers didn’t have the feathery antenna we typically saw on moths.

So when we spotted the first skippers in the garden that looked so moth-like but were flitting around in the sunshine, I started taking photographs and doing my research. 

Skipper butterfly drinking from a flower

We discovered that skippers keep one fuzzy little foot in both the domains of moths and butterflies. Some sources say they are an intermediate form between butterflies and moths since they have characteristics of both. They do have some common traits as moths, but are officially classified as butterflies in the superfamily Papilionoidea.

Antennae

Skippers have clubbed antennae, a characteristic feature of butterflies. Their antennae are typically hooked at the tips, however, a feature unique among butterflies, which usually have straight or gently curved clubs at the ends of their antennae.  In contrast, moths typically have either feathered or filamentous antennae without a distinct club.

Daytime Activity

Most skippers are diurnal (active during the day), which is a common trait among butterflies. Moths, on the other hand, are generally nocturnal, although there are many exceptions.

Resting Posture

When at rest, skippers typically hold their wings either partially or fully open, or in a characteristic “jet plane” position (angled like the body of a jet). This differs from both moths and butterflies and is primarily a skipper trait not commonly observed in the majority of other butterflies or moths.

Taxonomically, skippers form a distinct family within the superfamily Hesperioidea, which is believed to be one of the more ancient lineages among the butterfly families. 

This places them in an interesting position regarding the evolutionary history of the Lepidoptera. Their blend of moth-like and butterfly traits makes skippers a distinct and unique group within the Lepidoptera order.

A fiery skipper on sedum
Skippers have clubbed antennae and often hold their wings in a "jet plane" position.

Fun Facts

Energetic Flyers

Skippers are named for their rapid, skipping flight patterns, which make them look particularly energetic and fast compared to other butterflies.

Sunny Disposition

They are sun-loving insects and are most active on bright, sunny days, often seen basking in the sun with their wings held in a characteristic ‘jet-plane’ position.

Long Proboscis

Skippers have a specially adapted long proboscis which they use to drink nectar from flowers that are shaped in a way that keeps other insects out.

Skipper proboscis
Skippers have an extremely long retractable proboscis that stays curled up when not feeding.
 
Important Pollinators

While feeding on nectar, skippers play an important role in pollination, helping the reproduction of many types of wildflowers. They seem to prefer flowers that are flat or have short tubes, which makes it easier for them to access the nectar. They are active and require nectar throughout the spring, summer, and into the fall, so they utilize a succession of plant species as the seasons change.

Less Skittish Compared to Other Butterflies

One thing we noticed right away is how “tame” the skippers seemed. We could walk right up to them and get a close look or photograph.

Varieties of Skippers Observed in My Garden

Toad and Sage Garden is in Eastern Oklahoma which is home to several varieties of skipper butterflies, each adapted to different habitats and floral preferences. Some varieties that I have observed and photographed in the garden include:

Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)

Easily recognized by the large, silver-white spots on the underside of its hind wings.

Silver spotted skipper

 
Clouded Skipper (Lerema accius)

Features a muted brown or grayish color with a distinctive, broad, dark band across the forewings, often seen darting through grassy habitats.

Two clouded skippers mating

 
Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus)

A small, brightly colored skipper, males are yellow-orange while females are darker and more patterned.

A fiery skipper on yarrow flower

 
Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis)

Noted for the checkered pattern on its wings, it frequents disturbed habitats and open fields.

A checkered skipper on a purple aster

 
Huron Sachem (Atalopedes huron)

Notable for its velvety dark brown wings with a subtle green sheen in males, and more pronounced yellow or orange spotting in females, common in open fields and roadsides.

A Huron Sachem skipper

 
Eufala Skipper (Lerodea eufala)

Characterized by its small size and pale brown or grayish color with darker brown markings, often found nectaring in low vegetation and grassy fields.

Eufala Skipper on zinnia

Attracting Skippers to the Garden

Include a Variety of Host Plants

To support the complete lifecycle of skippers, incorporate host plants for their larvae. Different species of skippers prefer different types of plants, such as legumes (e.g., peas and beans), plants from the mallow family, as well as grasses and sedges that are native to your local region. Knowing which skippers are common in your area can guide you in selecting the right plants.

Create a Sunny Spot

Skippers are sun-loving insects, so ensure your garden has sunny areas with minimal shade during the day. This will be particularly attractive to skippers for basking and feeding.

Avoid Pesticides

Chemical pesticides can harm beneficial insects including skippers. Use natural pest control methods and embrace a bit of plant nibbling by larvae, which is a sign of a healthy, butterfly-friendly garden.

Provide Water Sources

Like all butterflies, skippers need water. Setting up a shallow water source, such as a birdbath with stones or marbles for them to land on, can provide necessary hydration and make your garden more inviting.

Let Some Weeds Grow

Many “weed” species are beneficial as host plants for butterfly larvae. Allowing a wild corner in the garden with natural grasses and weeds can create a perfect habitat for skipper larvae.

Provide Continuous Nectar Sources

Plant a succession of blooming plants to ensure that nectar sources are available throughout the growing season. This supports a broader range of skipper species and other pollinators whose active periods may vary.

Eyes and antenna of a checkered skipper
In the fall, skippers flock to the purple aster bush.

The Garden's Agile and Photogenic Pollinators

Skippers are very attractive and have cute faces and antennae, and beautiful wings with different patterns and colors sported by different varieties. They’re one of my favorite butterflies to photograph, and since they aren’t as skittish, I find them to be easier than many pollinators to capture in picture. I follow the steps below which are similar to my tips for photographing dragonflies.

Get Up close

Grab a macro lens if you have one and get in close to capture all the beautiful details of skippers. I use my Canon 100mm Macro Lens.

Adjust Aperture for Depth of Field

The Canon 100mm and other macro lenses allow for a shallow depth of field, which is ideal for isolating your subject from the background. Try different apertures between f/2.8 and f/8 to keep the skipper sharply in focus while softly blurring the background, emphasizing the skipper’s details against the often distracting backdrop of flowers. I most often use f/5.6.

Be patient and move slowly

Even though they seem less afraid of humans than other butterflies, when they do move, they dart quickly. They just don’t tend to fly off into a tree like most butterflies.  I wait near flowers where they tend to gather and feed. In my garden, they are particularly fond of sedum and asters in fall and zinnias, yarrow, and allium blooms in spring and summer. You might even use a tripod and set up near nectar-rich flowers and wait for them to land.

Focus on Their Features

With their compound eyes, characteristic antennae, fuzzy bodies, and diverse wing patterns, you will find lots of interesting features to put into focus. A good macro lens is excellent for capturing the intricate details of these extraordinary butterflies.

Utilize Soft Natural Light

As with any other outdoor subject, early morning or late afternoon provides softer light with lower contrast, reducing harsh shadows and highlights that midday sun might create. Slightly overcast days help diffuse harsh light as well. 

A roadside skipper
Skippers, like other butterflies make beautiful photos. Get in close and showcase their unique features.

The Charm of Skippers

Over the years, skippers have become a favorite insect in our garden. We are always so happy to spot the first ones of the season. Skippers really add a layer of complexity to our understanding of butterflies with their moth-like attributes and are a fascinating addition to any ecosystem. They provide both ecological benefits as pollinators and aesthetic value as part of the regional biodiversity. And they’re very photogenic!

References:

Garden Insects of North America: 2nd Edition – I keep a copy of this book nearby at all times to learn about the insects I am observing and photographing in the garden. It’s invaluable for an ecological gardener. 

iNaturalist – I use the iNaturalist website and app to help me identify the genus, species, and subspecies of the flora and fauna I photograph. View my collections of observations here.

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Cultivating Nature's Wisdom

I’m a nature photographer and gardener sharing how I created an ecological garden in a small suburban backyard. I also share a few tips for growing and using herbs to craft your own homegrown spice blends.

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