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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Fiery Skipper Butterfly (Hylephila phyleus)

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus - male) on Guadalupe Island rock daisy

The warm temperatures of spring through fall bring many butterflies to Southern California gardens.  From the large and dramatic Western Tiger Swallowtail to the miniscule Pygmy Blue, their bright colors and interesting behavior add much to our warm season gardens.  Butterfly-watching is enjoyed by all ages – and can be done inexpensively and comfortably in even a small garden.  It’s no wonder that interest in butterflies is growing.

Common to California gardens are the small orange/gold, brown and black butterflies known collectively as the Skippers.  The Skippers, in the family Hesperiidae, are best viewed as ‘sisters’ to the rest of the butterflies.  Their characteristics place them somewhere between the butterflies and the moths [1]. 

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus - male) feeding on Pluchea odorata
Several Skippers that frequent local gardens belong to the sub-family Hesperiinae - the folded-wing skippers.   We discussed this group – and the Umber Skipper - last month: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/07/umber-skipper-butterfly-poanes-melane.html.   Another locally common member is the Fiery Skipper, Hylephila phyleus, which is flying right now in Mother Nature’s Backyard.  The scientific name is pronounced ‘hi-lee-FY-luh   FY-lee-us’

Fiery Skippers are native to Southern California and beyond.  Their range is limited by cold winters, so the year-round range is limited to warmer areas like Southern United States, Southern California, the West Indies and Central America south to Argentina and Chile.  But they commonly stray further north (and to higher elevations), creating yearly colonies even as far north as northern California, the lower Mid-west and southern New England. They are very common in western Los Angeles County gardens, fields, parks and other grassy places.

The genus Hylephila, which is largely neotropical in range, contains 21 species.  All look somewhat similar to the Fiery Skipper: blotched yellow-orange and black on their upper sides and paler yellow with dark spots on their undersides.  In all, the females are duller colored, with more dark areas than the males.

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus - male) on Red buckwheat
 (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens). Note very short antennae

Fiery Skippers are smaller butterflies, with a wingspan ranging from about 1.25 to 1.5 inches (approximately 3 to 4 cm.).   They have stout, hairy bodies with a tapered abdomen (tail segment) and very short, distinctive antennae (see above). Their large, dark eyes contrast strongly in their yellow-white faces.  They perch with their wings either closed or, more commonly, with both the hind and forewings visible.   Fortunately, they can be easily photographed.

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus - male) - typical wing positions when perched
Male and female Fiery Skippers have slightly different coloration.  The males are the Fiery ones.  One can’t help but photograph the males - they are just so attractive!  Amongst all the photographs of Fiery’s I’ve taken, the vast majority are of males (sorry, ladies!).   We’ll try to do better in the future.

Not surprisingly, there are differences in coloration across the species’ wide range [2].  If you live outside Western Los Angeles County, your Fiery’s may look different from ours.  But Hylephila phyleus males are always more brightly colored. The overall impression of the male is of a small, bright yellow-orange butterfly with black streaks; of the female, a dark brown Skipper with some yellow-orange blotches.
Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus) - comparison of males & females

In local specimens, the underside of both males and females is a pale buff to light yellow-orange, with the males being more orange and females more buff.  The males have a small number of small, irregular brown spots.   The underside of the females is paler and has a series of light brown checks (see below).   The female underside could be mistaken for the less common Sandhill Skipper (Polites sabuleti), although the Sandhill has more distinctive and darker checks (at least in our gardens).

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus - female)
compared to Sandhill Skipper (Polites sabuleti)
The upperside of males has a ‘fiery’ appearance; bright to light yellow-orange background with wide black wing margins outlining the ‘flames’ (see above).  The males also have a distinctive, dark brown band (stigmata), which distinguishes them from other local bright orange Skippers (see below).   A great way to see the details – and appreciate the beauty – of butterflies is to photograph them.  For suggestions on photographing insects see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2015/07/life-friendly-gardening-photographing.html

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus - male) -
distinctive band-like stigmata

The upperside of females is darker – brown to almost black – with an irregular band of orange blotches.  The orange is paler than that of the males.  From the upperside, females might be mistaken for the rarer (in gardens) Field Skipper/ Satchem (Atalopedes campestris).  But in our gardens, where the Fiery Skippers far out-number the Satchems, a dark brown Skipper with orange blotches is usually a Fiery female.

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus - male) - nectaring on
 Yarrow (Achillea millefolia)
The bodies of both sexes are covered in long, golden hairs.  The lower ‘face’ and underside of the body are light gray or white.  The legs are yellow or buff.   The proboscis (tongue) used for feeding is dark (see above).

Old, tattered Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus - male)
In colder climates, Fiery Skippers die off in the winter.  At lower elevations in S. California, they can be seen most of the year - though in reduced numbers during the colder months.  Peak months in our gardens are late June through September.  Several broods hatch each year in most parts of the species’ range.   So you will see fresh young butterflies and older, tattered ones, at the same time.

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus - male) - perched on sedge
In summer, males perch on grass or flowers, waiting for receptive females.  Their bright colors, and the scent of pheromones (released from the stigmata) attract the females.   Adults are often found in groups of 10 or more at a given site.

Adult Fiery Skippers can also be seen feeding at many types of flowers.  They seem to particularly favor the many small flowers of the Mint and Sunflower Families and the native Buckwheats.  The best Skipper plants in our gardens are the Monardellas, Yarrow, Grindelias, Senecios, Pluchea, Goldenrods and all of the Buckwheats (Eriogonum species).  They also utilize many non-native garden flowers.   You will even see them in vegetable gardens!

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus - male) - feeding on
 Seacliff (Dune) buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)

The Hylephila phyleus larvae, like those of other ‘Grass Skippers’, eat grass.  They utilize a number of native and non-native grasses; where there is any type of lawn or weedy grass, there will likely be Fiery Skippers.  Eggs are usually laid on the underside of grass leaves, but may also be laid on other plants.  The caterpillars tie the edges of a grass leaf together, creating a protective shelter.   You may see these ‘tents’ in your grass, but they are easy to overlook.

The caterpillars themselves are tan to green, less than about an inch, striped and with a large, dark head.  They blend in pretty well with the grasses on which they feed.  You’ll have to look hard to find them.

For more good pictures of Fiery Skipper, including their larvae, see:


Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus - male) - feeding on
 Seacliff (Dune) buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)

We hope you’ll look for Fiery Skippers in your garden or other outdoor places.  They are very active this time of year.  Though small, they are beautiful and fun to watch.  Happy viewing!




1.   Art Shapiro’s Butterfly Site - http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu/butterfly/common/Skippers

2.   Butterflies and Moths of North America - http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Hylephila-phyleus


We encourage your comments below.   If you have questions about Fiery Skipper butterflies or other gardening topics you can e-mail us at :  mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

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