How to Identify Copper Butterflies

picture of copper butterfly

Sixteen native copper butterflies (subfamily Lycaeninae) of butterflies, inhabit North American fields, forests and roadsides. All but four inhabit Western areas. The small number of species translates into a special day when a copper butterfly lands in the garden.

At a distance, the brown wings of copper butterflies gives them a physical resemblance with many of the brown wing, female blue butterfly species. With the exception of the Blue Copper, the top wings of most male coppers come in shades of orange or copper. One slight identification problem comes up. While most copper butterflies follow the tailess rule like the blue butterflies, the Tailed Copper (Lycaena arota) provides an exception to the rule. They are a common species in the West, with the exception of the northern most and desert areas.

Accurate identification requires a view of the underside of the wings. Often coppers nectar with their wings folded, so getting a side view picture can be a relatively easy task.

Two colorful western species, the Lilac-bordered Copper (Lycaena nivalis) and Purplish Copper, share many physical features.

The Purplish Copper (Lycaena helloides) inhabits both high and low elevation areas.

The name comes from the purple shade on the top wings of the male. It eventually fades, leaving the wings a duller brown color. Hints of purple remain on the wings of the male in the top picture.

Along with the purple tinge to the wings, the male Purplish Copper displays orange spots at the bottom of the wing and dark spots on the wings.

Purplish Copper butterflies often get differentiated from Lilac-bordered Coppers by the presence of more dark spots on the top wings.

picture of the top wings of a male lilac-bordered copper butterfly

Comparing the top picture with picture two, a male Lilac-ordered Copper, highlights the difference in wing spotting patterns.

picture of a mariposa copper butterfly

The Mariposa Copper (Lycaena mariposa), a hardy species, inhabits both lower and higher elevations areas of Western North America.

The contrasting orange (top) and gray (bottom) bottom wings, seen in picture three, also make is a fairly easy copper to identify.

Look for it in areas with high density heath plants such as blueberry bushes and heather.

picture of an edith's copper butterfly

The Edith’s Copper (Lycaena editha), a somewhat dull color copper of the Northwest and Northern Rocky Mountain regions, can look similar to the Great Copper.

Edith’s Copper tend to be a higher elevation species while Great Coppers tend to be lower elevation species.

Picture four shows a side view of the wings and their series of darker and lighter brown shaded spots. The washed out color extends to a couple of missing orange spots at the bottom of the lower wing.