Hackberry Emperor: All You Need to Know in a Quick Guide

The Hackberry Emperor is a fascinating butterfly that can be found across many regions in the United States. These butterflies exhibit unique characteristics, making them a captivating subject for both enthusiasts and casual observers alike.

Their scientific name is Asterocampa celtis, with “Asterocampa” referring to the star-like “antlers” they possess in front. They have a wingspan that ranges from 1¼ to 2½ inches, displaying a distinct reddish-brown upperside color. The Hackberry Emperor’s forewing features an eyespot and a cluster of white spots near its tip ([source]).

Key features of Hackberry Emperor include:

  • Reddish-brown upperside
  • Wingspan between 1¼ – 2½ inches
  • Forewing with an eyespot and white spots cluster

These butterflies are commonly found in regions where their preferred host plants, hackberry trees (Celtis spp.), are abundant. So if you’re interested in observing these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat, keep an eye out for areas with dense hackberry trees!

Hackberry Emperor Overview

Origin and Scientific Name

The Hackberry Emperor butterfly is native to the areas from northeastern Mexico to the eastern United States1. Its scientific name is Asterocampa celtis, with “Asterocampa” meaning “star caterpillar” and “celtis” referring to the hackberry trees its caterpillars feed on2.

Physical Characteristics

Hackberry Emperors have a wingspan ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 inches2. Males are smaller than females and have narrower wings2. The color of the butterfly consists of gray and tan shades, with black and white spots decorating the wings3. The underside of the wings features similar colors, adorned with small patterns3.

Comparison Table: Hackberry Emperor vs. Tawny Emperor

Feature Hackberry Emperor Tawny Emperor
Color Neutral tan Rust-colored
Upper Side Cell4 One unbroken dark bar Two offset dark bars
  • Key differences: The Hackberry Emperor can be distinguished from its close relative, the Tawny Emperor, by its more neutral tan color as opposed to the rust-colored Tawny Emperor3.
  • Upper side cell: Hackberry Emperors have a single, unbroken dark bar, while Tawny Emperors have two offset dark bars in the upper side cell of their wings4.

Life Cycle and Behavior

Eggs and Larvae

The life cycle of the Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa celtis) begins with the female laying eggs on hackberry trees, specifically on Celtis spp. leaves1. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae emerge and start to feed on the leaves.

Some characteristics of the eggs and larvae include:

  • Oval-shaped eggs
  • Larvae with star-like “antlers”

Caterpillar Stage

As the larvae grow, they develop into caterpillars. The caterpillar stage is crucial for growth and development as they consume leaves to gain energy4. Caterpillars eventually reach a point where they are ready to create a chrysalis and transform into a butterfly.

Features of Hackberry Emperor caterpillars:

  • Green color
  • Star-like “antlers” in front

Pupa to Butterfly

When the caterpillar is fully developed, it forms a chrysalis, entering the pupal stage3. Once the metamorphosis is complete, the adult butterfly emerges from the pupa.

Stage Duration
Egg to Larvae A few days
Caterpillar Several weeks
Pupa/Chrysalis to Adults 1-2 weeks

Hackberry Emperor butterflies have a wingspan of 1¼ – 2½ inches5 and can be identified by their reddish-brown color, forewing eyespot, and a cluster of white spots near the wingtip.

Habitat and Distribution

North America

The Hackberry Emperor is a butterfly species native to North America. Its habitat typically includes areas with hackberry trees which provide food for their larvae.

  • Found in northeastern Mexico, southwestern United States, and Nebraska
  • Commonly found near streams, floodplains, and forests
  • Tolerates a range of soil conditions and climates

Eastern United States

The Eastern United States is home to a significant population of Hackberry Emperors. They are present in most parts of the region except for some areas in the North.

  • Absent in northern half of Wisconsin, Michigan, and New York
  • Not found in New England
  • Prefers moist sites with hackberry trees

Southern States

In the Southern States, the Hackberry Emperor is quite common and enjoys the warmer climate.

  • Frequently seen around forests with hackberry trees
  • Tends to be more concentrated around streams and floodplains

Comparison of Distribution

Region Present Habitat
North America Yes Forests, streams
Eastern United States Yes Moist sites, hackberry trees
Southern States Yes Warm climates, forests, streams

Overall, the Hackberry Emperor butterfly has a wide distribution across the United States, primarily in habitats with hackberry trees that serve as their main food source.

The Hackberry Tree Relationship

Importance of Hackberry Trees

Hackberry trees play a crucial role in the life cycle of the Hackberry Emperor butterfly. The larvae, or caterpillars, of the Hackberry Emperor feed exclusively on the leaves of hackberry trees. These trees provide necessary nutrients for the caterpillar’s growth and development.

Here are some bullet points highlighting the role of hackberry trees:

  • Hackberry trees serve as the primary food source for Hackberry Emperor larvae.
  • They are essential for the growth and development of the butterfly.
  • The relationship between Hackberry Emperors and hackberry trees is mutually beneficial.

Types of Hackberry Trees

There are various types of hackberry trees, but two common species are Celtis occidentalis and Celtis laevigata. Both species are essential for the survival of Hackberry Emperors.

Common Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) Sugar Hackberry (Celtis laevigata)
Deciduous tree native to North America Deciduous tree native to the Southern US
Leaves have uneven bases Smoother leaves with even bases
Small flowers in spring Small flowers in spring
Seeds in small, berry-like fruits Seeds in small, berry-like fruits

In summary, hackberry trees are of great importance to Hackberry Emperors as they provide food and shelter for their larvae. The relationship between the butterfly and these trees is essential for their survival. Common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) and sugar hackberry (Celtis laevigata) are two common species of hackberry trees that aid in the life cycle of this fascinating butterfly.

Diet and Pollination

Feeding Habits

The Hackberry Emperor butterfly feeds mainly on nectar and sap. Some examples of their favorite food sources include:

  • Wild plum
  • Soapberry
  • Oak tree sap

Their feeding preferences make them beneficial pollinators in many ecosystems.

Role in Pollination

As pollinators, Hackberry Emperors play a crucial role in the reproduction of flowering plants. While feeding on nectar, the butterflies unknowingly pick up pollen on their body. They then transfer the pollen to other plants as they continue feeding, resulting in fertilization and seed production. Here are some benefits of Hackberry Emperors as pollinators:

  • Help maintain biodiversity
  • Support the growth of other plants
  • Provide food for other species, including humans

Comparison Table: Hackberry Emperor vs. Other Pollinators

Hackberry Emperor Other Pollinators (like bees)
Feeding Habits Prefers nectar and sap Feeds on nectar and pollen
Pollination Efficiency Moderate High
Plant Preferences Wild plum, soapberry, oak tree sap Various, depending on species

Overall, while Hackberry Emperors may not be as efficient pollinators as some bee species, they still contribute significantly to the pollination of various plants in their habitat.

Predators and Threats

Natural Enemies

The Hackberry Emperor butterfly faces several natural enemies. Predators of this butterfly species include:

  • Birds, such as mockingbirds and blue jays, that feed on the adult butterflies and caterpillars
  • Parasitic wasps, which lay their eggs in the caterpillars, eventually killing them

Some examples of natural enemies:

  • Mockingbird: known to feed on both adult butterflies and larvae
  • Braconid Wasp: a parasitic wasp that attacks caterpillars

Conservation

The Hackberry Emperor is not currently listed as a threatened species. However, the butterfly population can face localized declines due to the following factors:

  • Habitat loss: Destruction of their preferred habitat, such as river bottoms and areas with abundant hackberry trees
  • Pesticide use: Widespread use of pesticides may harm the butterfly population indirectly by killing their host plants or food sources

Habitat Loss

Habitat loss affects the Hackberry Emperor in numerous ways:

  • Loss of host plants, like hackberry trees, on which the butterfly depends for egg-laying and larval feeding
  • Fragmentation of their natural habitats may limit the potential for migration and genetic exchange

Comparison of Natural Enemies and Habitat Loss:

Threat Cause Impact on Hackberry Emperor
Natural Enemies Predation by birds and parasitic wasps Direct harm to adults and caterpillars
Habitat Loss Destruction of habitat, such as river bottoms and areas with hackberry trees Reduction in suitable habitat for breeding

Similar Species and Identification

Tawny Emperor

The Tawny Emperor (Asterocampa clyton) is a butterfly species closely related to the Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa celtis). They can be distinguished by their coloration and wing patterns:

  • Tawny Emperor: Rust-colored with a more uniform appearance
  • Hackberry Emperor: Neutral tan with white spots near the forewing tip

Here’s a comparison table to highlight their differences:

Feature Tawny Emperor Hackberry Emperor
Color Rust-colored Neutral tan
Spots Uniform White spots

Other Butterfly Species

In addition to the Tawny Emperor, other butterfly species within the Lepidoptera order may resemble the Hackberry Emperor. It’s essential to pay attention to the wing patterns and colors for proper identification. For example, some butterfly species may have:

  • Different shades of brown or orange
  • Unique eye spots or dashes
  • Varied patterns on their wings

In conclusion, identifying the Hackberry Emperor involves examining its neutral tan color and white spots near the forewing tip. Comparing it with similar species like the Tawny Emperor and other Lepidoptera butterflies will help in differentiating them and ensuring accurate identification.

Observation and Interaction

Spotting Hackberry Emperors

Hackberry Emperors are mid-to-large sized butterflies with a wingspan of approximately 2 inches. They have a brownish-orange and black color pattern which makes them easy to distinguish. Binoculars may help you observe them better at a distance. These butterflies are found throughout most parts of the United States, except for the northern parts of some states and New England1.

Hackberry Emperor vs. Tawny Emperor:

Feature Hackberry Emperor Tawny Emperor
Color Brownish-orange and black More rust-colored
Wingspan Approximately 2 inches (5.1 cm) Similar to Hackberry Emperor
Dark bars One unbroken dark bar Broken inner dark bar, 2 offset bars

Support in Gardens

To support Hackberry Emperor butterflies in your garden, consider planting their caterpillar host plants, such as hackberry trees4. These trees not only serve as a food source but also offer shelter to the caterpillars. In addition to the host plants, you can also provide a variety of nectar-rich flowers for adult Hackberry Emperors to feed on.

Garden care tips:

  • Plant hackberry trees and other host plants
  • Provide nectar-rich flowers for adult butterflies
  • Minimize the use of pesticides
  • Offer shelter through plants and trees

Starting your own butterfly garden can be a rewarding experience, as it provides a safe habitat for these beautiful creatures while also enhancing the beauty of your outdoor space.

Footnotes

  1. https://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/bfly/hackberry_emperor.htm 2 3

  2. https://uwm.edu/field-station/hackberry-emperor-family-nymphalidae/ 2 3

  3. https://education.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/hackberry-emperor 2 3 4

  4. https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/hackberry-emperor 2 3 4

  5. Alabama Butterfly Atlas

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Metamorphosis of the Hackberry Emperor

 

A complete Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa celtis) collection
Dear Lisa Anne and Daniel,
Today I want to add some more beauty to your wonderful site. It feels prestiguous to be published on it. Here I am sending the picture collection of the Hackberry Emperor to you. It shows the main stages from when one can find them as young caterpillars in early spring until the butterfly is hatched. For those people who want to distinguish the young stages from the Tawny Emperor (A. clyton), one should pay attention to the almost black head of the very young caterpillars.

In later caterpillar instars, the horns of the hackberry Emperor (A. celtis) have much shorter spines. The older caterpillars have typical white stripes which are not in line with the head-tail body axis. These stripes will also be visible on the pupa and are white and clearly visible on the pupa.

The butterfly resembles to the Painted Lady, and care should be taken when identifying it. So, there are still a few pictures of the Tawny Emperor coming. It can’t take long until the photo model is close to hatch. Until then, have a nice weekend, and I will get back to you soon with the last batch of pictures for this spring.
Best regards,
Thomas
Madison/Wisconsin

Hi again Thomas,
We are so lucky to get each awesome batch of images you send our way. Your patience in unparalleled. Not only do you raise all these wonderful caterpillars, you get amazing photographs of all the stages. If we are nearing the end of the photos for this season, we can’t wait to see what next spring will bring. Have a great day.
Daniel and Lisa Anne

Letter 2 – Hackberry Butterfly

 

i identified it! a hackberry butterfly
I sent this picture yesterday, today I found a great book Butterflies and Moths of Missouri and I found my little butterfly. It’s a Hackberry Butterfly.
angie

Hi Angie,
We are very happy your letter does not contain a chilling account where this exaggeratedly large and aggressive creature terrorized your children (love the photo), so you squashed it. We also appologize for not answering your letter yesterday, but our mail volume is very high. We did locate a nice webpage with the stages of metamorphosis of the Hackberry Butterfly, Asterocampa celtis celtis. This past spring, Thomas from Madison Wisconsin also sent us complete photos of the Hackberry Emperor metamorphosis.

Letter 3 – Hackberry Emperor

 

unknown butterfly
Good morning,  We were at the Haw river in NC yesterday and one of the kids on the school field trip had this Butterfly land on her.  She is very interested in finding out what kind it is.  I thought it might be an Appalachian Brown,  but those white spots eliminate that …is it some kind of Satyr?  I can’t find it in my guide,  even though it looks fairly common.   If anyone would know…you would.  Any help would be appreciated…as all the kids  were  very fond of the little guy.
Thank you,
Mary Sonis

Hackberry Emperor
Hackberry Emperor

Hi Mary,
Your butterfly is one of the Emperor Butterflies, most likely the Hackberry Emperor, Asterocampa celtis.

Letter 4 – Hackberry Emperor attracted to clay slip

 

I have a few photos I thought you might like. A few summers ago I was throwing pottery outside in central Kentucky and this moth couldn’t resist the tasty clay slip covering my hands as I threw. It nibbled for hours, and even though I shooed it away again and again (its tongue was ticklish as I tried to concentrate on my pottery), it wouldn’t take no for an answer! Great site; thanks for the great information.
Cindy

Hi Cindy,
This is a Hackberry Emperor, Asterocampa celtis. Some butterflies are know for puddling, or drinking water from muddy rain puddles. The are attracted to the moisture as well as to the rich minerals in the mud. Your photo is great.

Letter 5 – Hackberry Emperor Butterfly

 

Subject: Is it an Emperor Butterfly?
Location: Coryell County, Texas
September 28, 2013 12:29 am
I noticed this camouflaged butterfly today only because I accidentally disturbed it. Is it an Emperor butterfly, perhaps a Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa celtis) ? It kept going back to the crepe myrtle tree, hanging head down. I read that the male Emperors tend to hang head down and wait for females to fly by. This butterfly seems a bit worn; we’ve had some stormy weather.
Thank you!
Here is a Bug Guide page: http://bugguide.net/node/view/743948#1332222
Signature: Ellen

Emperor Butterfly
Hackberry Emperor Butterfly

Dear Ellen,
You are correct that this is one of the Emperor Butterflies, most likely the Hackberry Emperor.

Hackberry Emperor
Hackberry Emperor

Letter 6 – Hackberry Emperor

 

Hackberry or Tawny Emperor?
Location: Bedford, TX
July 17, 2011 3:16 pm
I’ve had this photo in my stash for a few years and have always thought it was a Hackberry Emperor but lately I’m not so sure it couldn’t be a Tawny Emperor. I do remember this little guy was a most patient photo model.
Thanks!
Signature: Cerues

Hackberry Emperor

Dear Cerues,
In our opinion, this looks more like a Hackberry Emperor,
Asterocampa celtis, and you can compare your photo to this very similar individual on BugGuide.  Should you desire more information on the Hackberry Emperor, you may find that on BugGuide as well.

Letter 7 – Hackberry Emperor

 

Unidentified Butterflu
Location: Southern Missouri, Near Ozarks
July 19, 2011 10:27 am
Hey Bugman,
Please help me id this butterfly!
Signature: jonesynyc

Hackberry Emperor

Hi jonesynyc,
Your butterfly is a Hackberry Emperor.

Letter 8 – Hackberry Emperor

 

Subject:  Butterfly or moth
Geographic location of the bug:  Tucson, AZ
Date: 08/09/2019
Time: 03:37 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Hello,
I saw this butterfly or moth in an orange tree in my friends backyard in Tucson yesterday 8/8/19 around 5pm.
Sent it out to family, but no one knows what it is so far.
My friend fears it could hurt the tree.
If you are able to identify it I’d appreciate knowing what it is and if it takes up residence, could it cause harm and if so, how to encourage gently, to find another home.
Thank you for your service.
All the best,
How you want your letter signed:  Patrick

Hackberry Emperor

Dear Patrick,
Though your images lack critical sharpness, we are relative certain this butterfly is a Hackberry Emperor,
Asterocampa celtis, based on this BugGuide image.  We are intrigued with your friend’s irrational fear that a butterfly might pose a threat to the orange tree.  Butterflies generally feed on nectar.  Only in the caterpillar stage when most species feed on leaves would a butterfly pose anything resembling a threat to a tree, and then only if the caterpillars are very plentiful.  Is there a hackberry tree nearby?  Because the caterpillars feed on the leaves of hackberry, BugGuide notes of the habitat preference:  “Varied, but always near Hackberry trees.” 

Letter 9 – Hackberry Emperor

 

Subject:  Butterfly near garden
Geographic location of the bug:  Hershey pa
Date: 08/24/2019
Time: 09:23 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  I saw this pretty butterfly near my garden. Just wondering what it is?
How you want your letter signed:  Sue Katerman

Hackberry Emperor

Hi Sue,
This is a Hackberry Emperor, which is pictured on BugGuide.  According to BugGuide, the habitat is:  “Deciduous woodlands with hostplant, Hackberry (
Celtis).”

Letter 10 – Hackberry Emperors

 

Subject: More Emperors, Part 2
Location: Coryell County, Texas
October 7, 2013 2:01 pm
Hello again,
I think these are all of the same species, perhaps a Hackberry Emperor? They are so attracted to one shrub that has a substance on it.
Thank you!
Signature: Ellen

Hackberry Emperor
Hackberry Emperor

Hi Ellen,
Again, this new batch of images is quite nice.  The Hackberry Emperor has more developed occuli or eyespots than the Tawny Emperor, so we agree with your identification.  There are also subspecies and BugGuide does not explain the differences in the subspecies.  Butterflies Through Binoculars the West by Jeffrey Glassberg states that Emperors “rarely visit flowers but these are the butterflies most likely to visit butterfliers, frequently landing on people in search of the salts in our perspiration.”  There must be sap running on the shrub they are visiting.

Hackberry Emperor
Hackberry Emperor

Letter 11 – Obweaver eats Hackberry Emperor

 

Subject:  Spider subduing a Butterfly
Geographic location of the bug:  Great Falls National Park, Great Falls, Virginia
Date: 07/08/2018
Time: 02:54 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  I witnessed this butterfly being subdued by the spider, having being caught in it’s web, and I am having trouble identifying either the butterfly or the spider. I hope you can help me. In any case, certainly it was fascinating to watch. The butterfly ceased it’s struggles in about a minute.
How you want your letter signed:  Seth

Hackberry Emperor

Dear Seth,
Based on this BugGuide image, we feel confident this butterfly is a Hackberry Emperor,
Asterocampa celtis, though we acknowledge it might be a similar looking relative from the genus.  Because of the orb web, we are confident the Spider is an Orbweaver in the family Araneidae, but we cannot provide a species.  It looks immature, and it is often difficult to conclusively identify immature individuals.  In fact, it is also difficult to provide conclusive species identifications from adult Orbweavers.  Orbweavers pose no danger to humans.  They are docile spiders that spin webs, often very strong webs, and they wait patiently in the web to snare prey.  They rarely leave their webs. 

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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