Best Butterfly Field Guides

Updated August 2020
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Buying guide for best butterfly field guides

Butterflies are one of nature’s true beauties. They may seem like an elusive mystery as they flit across your path, but you may be surprised to find out how common they are. The world has about 20,000 species of butterflies. More than 700 species make their home in the U.S. and Canada. The presence of both butterflies and moths are a strong indicator of a healthy ecosystem.

A butterfly field guide is a a good way to get to know the butterflies you may find near your home or on a trip into nature. It is a book with pictures, names, maps, migration paths and descriptions of butterflies. These field guides help you identify and understand the life cycles and patterns of these beautiful creatures and improve your experience of understanding what you see.

Some field guides are easier to use than others. Beginners may want one designed for kids, that is heavily photo-based, or that can offer tips on how to bring butterflies into your backyard. More experienced watchers will prefer the guides that are more descriptive and comprehensive. Before you buy, we have put together a shopping guide to help you know what factors to consider to choose the right guide for you.

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A good field guide should be able to cover all of the species in your area while remaining a handy size with large pictures.

Butterfly field guides considerations

Clear organization

A field guide is more than a book of information. The best guides are quick tools that can help you identify what you are seeing in real time. Your field guide should have an introduction on how to use it inside the first few pages. While there are some variations on interior organization, the goal should be to find a guide that helps you quickly flip to a section and locate the butterfly you are seeing. Some of the organizational techniques are to group butterflies in the book by color, region, and type.

  • Identifying butterflies by color: Butterflies and moths both come in colors that range from bright primary shades to deep purples, browns, and grays. This type of guide will allow you to quickly move to a section of butterflies of similar colors. The challenge with this technique is that color is not always true, and may be a little confusing.

  • Identifying butterflies by shape: Butterflies may be categorized in your book by wing shape. Some of the categories may include swallowtails, fritillaries, milkweed butterflies, whites and sulphers, and longwings.

    • Swallowtails are distinguished by a very slender tip on their set of bottom wings.

    • Fritillaries are a balanced butterfly with slightly larger wings on top than on the bottom.

    • Longwings have a longer slender top set of wings and a short rounded bottom set.

    • Milkweed butterflies have a classic butterfly shape with a large set of upper wings. Monarch butterflies are a kind of milkweed butterfly.

    • Whites & sulphers have a somewhat flatter top and side edge to their wings.

  • Identifying butterflies by region: Make sure the butterfly guide you buy has good regional maps. There are so many species of butterflies, that most guides cannot be comprehensive. However, they can do a good job of covering a large area — for instance North America. If you believe you have identified a butterfly by color and shape, check the regional maps in your book to make sure the butterfly you have identified matches roughly the region or migratory pattern.

Number of species covered

If you live in North America, you should be able to find a butterfly field guide that covers all the known species in the area. There are about 750 species in the United States. You can also make identifying butterflies easier by getting a more localized guide, such as for your state.

Butterfly field guide features

Interior information

A butterfly field guide should offer a wide variety of information about butterflies beyond species identification. Other information to look for includes:

  • Chrysalis and caterpillar pictures (beside the butterfly they will become)

  • Life cycles

  • Migratory range maps

  • Habitat information

  • Tips on how to attract them with plants

  • Where to most likely find certain butterflies

Size of the guide

Think about how you actually plan to use this book. A true field guide will be easy to carry, or pack in a backpack. If you don’t tend to carry much, some are pocket-sized. It should be lightweight, and not too large if you’ll bring it with you in the field. An easy-to-carry book that is still large enough to read will be no bigger than about 5 by 8 inches. Larger guides will be better suited for home use, and they may be your preferred guide if you take photos and want to identify them once back home.

Cover material

You will find the most common cover material for butterfly field guides is paper or vinyl. Hardback and leather are also available.

  • Paper covers are going to be your least expensive  and most common option. The paper cover will make your field guide lightweight, but it can get torn with heavy use. It will also not stand up well under wet conditions. If you choose paper, make sure it is laminated and offers a UV rating.

  • Hardback covers are made from a rigid paper material. They are more expensive than paperback covers, and will provide more protection for the pages of your guide. The disadvantage is they are heavier and could break down more easily if you plan to throw it in your backpack. Get a hardback cover if you are primarily planning to use it inside the house as a reference guide after your excursion.

  • Vinyl covers are a good weather-resistant choice. If you plan to take your guide into the field with you or keep it in your car for park excursions, a vinyl cover is a good choice. It can take a beating and will cost about the same as a hardback guide. If you want to keep it on your shelf, it won’t match your other books as well, so it will be easy to spot.

  • Leather, while rare to find, is a traditional form of binding and can last a long time. If you are looking for a gift field guide for an experienced butterfly lover, a leather-bound book is a classic and nice choice. It will provide a sturdy cover that will also be weather resistant. Plus, newer books are usually faux leather, keeping the cost down and making them vegan-friendly.


A field guide could come either glue bound or spiral bound.

  • Glue bound guides are like a normal book binding, which works well, but can break down over time with heavy use.

  • Spiral binding offers the advantage of being able to flip open to one page at a time without having to break the spine and damage your pages, but it doesn’t look as sleek.
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Did you know?
Butterfly field guides with thousand of pictures include images of the butterfly at different stages in its life cycle. They may also cover moths.

Butterfly field guide prices


The least expensive butterfly guides will start at about $5. These will often be created for children. They may also be some kind of foldable guide that is easy to carry with you, but will only cover the most common species you are likely to encounter in your region.


For $10 to $15 you should be able to buy a comprehensive guide that is easy for a beginner to use, but provides enough information to interest the experienced butterfly watcher. You may also be able to find a specialty guide, like one that includes gardening tips for attracting butterflies.


Between $15 to $40 you will be able to purchase a guide appropriate for the most experienced watcher. These guides will be very detailed and may be true field guides covering all the species in a particular area.


  • Read your field guide ahead of time to get an idea of what kind of butterflies you might find in your area, or the area you are visiting. You can spot them easier if you know what you are looking for.

  • You are more likely to be able to view butterflies on sunny days in the middle of the day than on a cloudy day.

  • Butterflies like to hide and flit away quickly. Plan on taking a photo to compare later with your field guide.

  • Some field guides have an “actual size” notation. This is an important feature to check when trying to identify a species.

Other products we considered

For this shopping guide we looked at field guides that covered only butterflies. You can, however, get guides that cover moths as well. There are about 11,000 species of moths in the United States alone and 160,000 world wide, making it very difficult to find an exhaustive guide that is not an academic text. However, most of those on the market do a good job of showing you the most common species. We like the Smithsonian Handbooks: Butterflies & Moths, which is easy to use and has good pictures, even though it only covers a small fraction of the possible species. It does address the most common and is great for a beginner. Butterflies and Moths (a Golden Guide from St. Martin’s Press) takes a look at several types of true butterflies, skippers and many moths and offers good information about life cycles and the differences between these similar insects. DK: Eyewitness Books also created a Butterfly & Moth book which is more of a book about the life cycles and changes these insects go through than a comprehensive guide.

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Some very simple guides are little more than laminated foldable information pages. While they are simple, they can still provide a good way for new watchers to begin to enjoy the activity.


Q. Are there going to be enough different butterflies near my home to need a field guide?

A. According to the North American Butterfly Association there are about 100 different types of butterflies living near any location in the United States. You may have more if you live in the west or near the Rio Grande.

Q.  What is the appeal of butterfly watching?

A. Butterflies are a beautiful insect. They have always attracted human interest for their amazing transformation from crawling to flying creature as they go through their life cycle. Learning the skill of butterfly watching in order to participate in scientific butterfly counts in your area can also provide helpful information about environmental stability and ecosystem health.

Q. What is the difference between a butterfly and a moth?

A. Butterflies and moths are both part of the family of insects called Lepidoptera. They have similar life cycles. They start out as a caterpillar, enter a metamorphosis stage and come out a flying insect with beautiful long wings looking quite different than their pre-cocooned self. Butterflies have a clubbed antenna and fly during the day. They are not considered destructive. Moths are often considered pests, lack the club at the end of their antenna, and generally fly at night.

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