Parnassian Butterfly: All You Need to Know for Enthusiasts

The Parnassian Butterfly is a fascinating species that thrives in alpine environments. These butterflies are not only visually captivating, but they also play important roles as pollinators and indicators of climate change. The distribution of Parnassian butterflies can help scientists understand how environmental conditions are shifting due to climate change.

Belonging to the family Papilionidae, Parnassian butterflies are characterized by their delicate, transparent wings and bold patterns. They can often be found in mountainous regions throughout North America, such as in the North Coast and Cascades. Though mesmerizing to observe, the biogeography of Parnassian butterflies dive deeper, revealing vital information about the impacts of the Pleistocene alpine glacier growth on alpine ecosystems.

Parnassian Butterfly Overview

Origin and Distribution

The Parnassian butterfly, scientifically known as Parnassius, is a genus representing a unique group of butterflies. They are predominantly found across Asia, Europe, and North America, including British Columbia, Washington, the United States, and Canada.

These butterflies belong to the family Papilionidae and are commonly found in alpine areas. They are known to have adapted to the montane landscapes, resulting from glacial growth during the Quaternary climate.

Physical Characteristics

Parnassian butterflies come in various shapes and sizes, sporting different color patterns on their wings. Key features of Parnassian butterflies include:

  • Distinctive wing patterns with a combination of white, black, and red colors
  • Presence of a red ocellus, or eye-like marking, on the hind wings
  • Generally larger wingspan compared to other butterflies
Parnassian Butterfly Other Butterflies
Color White, black, and red Various
Wingspan Larger Smaller (usually)
Distribution Asia, Europe, North America Worldwide
Habitat Alpine, montane regions Various, including grasslands

Habitats and Altitudes

Meadows and Host Plants

Parnassian butterflies reside primarily in meadows. They lay their eggs on their host plants, mainly belonging to the Papaveraceae and Fumariaceae families1. Examples of host plants include:

  • Dicentra
  • Bleeding heart
  • Stonecrop

These host plants provide nourishment for the Parnassian larvae in their early stages of life.

Altitude Preferences

Parnassian butterflies exhibit altitude preferences, typically inhabiting alpine regions2. Some key features of their preferred habitat include:

  • High altitude meadows
  • Cooler temperatures
  • Alpine flora
Habitat Preferences Parnassian Butterfly Other Alpine & Meadow Species
Altitude High Low to Medium
Temperature Cooler Warmer
Flora Alpine Specific Various Meadow Species

By staying in these preferred altitudes, Parnassian butterflies can thrive in their unique habitat among other alpine species.

Life Cycle and Reproduction

Stages of Life Cycle

The Parnassian butterfly’s life cycle consists of four main stages:

  1. Egg: Tiny, cream-colored eggs laid by the female on the underside of host plants.
  2. Larva: Known as caterpillars, these worm-like creatures hatch from the eggs and feed on the host plant.
  3. Pupa: The transformation stage, where the caterpillar forms a protective chrysalis to turn into a butterfly.
  4. Adult: The final stage, when the beautiful and graceful Parnassian butterfly emerges from its chrysalis.

Mating and Mating Plugs

Mating: Male and female Parnassian butterflies perform a courtship dance before mating. Mating occurs when the male successfully positions himself to transfer sperm to the female.

Mating Plugs: Some male Parnassian butterflies produce a mating plug during copulation. This plug effectively blocks the female’s reproductive tract, preventing her from mating with other males and ensuring that the first male’s sperm is used to fertilize her eggs. This strategy helps increase the male’s reproductive success.

Here are some key characteristics of Parnassian butterflies’ life cycle and reproduction:

  • Both males and females participate in the mating process
  • Mating plugs can increase a male’s chances of fathering offspring
  • The life cycle consists of four distinct stages

Here’s a comparison table showcasing the stages of the Parnassian butterfly’s life cycle:

Stage Characteristics
Egg Tiny, cream-colored, laid on host plant leaves
Larva Caterpillars that feed on host plants
Pupa Transformation in a protective chrysalis
Adult Graceful butterflies capable of mating and reproducing

Parnassian Butterfly Ecology

Diet: Nectar and Flowers

Parnassian butterflies, like most butterfly species, primarily consume nectar from flowers. They use their long, straw-like proboscis to sip nectar, providing them with energy and essential nutrients. Flowers that attract Parnassian butterflies and other pollinators include:

  • Milkweed
  • Coneflower
  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Goldenrod
  • Joe-Pye weed

Pollinators and Interactions with Other Insects

Parnassian butterflies play a crucial role as pollinators, helping plants to reproduce by transferring pollen between flowers. While they are not as efficient pollinators as honey bees or bumble bees, their contribution to the ecosystem is significant.

Interactions with other insects

Parnassian butterflies share their habitats with other insects, including dragonflies, margined calligraphers, and miller moths. These diverse species often interact as they visit flowers for nectar or seek mates, providing a complex web of connections within the ecosystem.

Comparison of Insect Pollinators

Insect Pollination Efficiency Diet Habitat
Parnassian Butterfly Moderate Nectar Meadows, forests
Honey Bee High Nectar, pollen Near flower-rich environments
Bumble Bee High Nectar, pollen Gardens, meadows, woodlands
Dragonfly Low Mosquitoes, small insects Near water sources
Margined Calligrapher Low Plant sap, some nectar Deciduous forests

In conclusion, Parnassian butterflies play an essential role in their ecosystem as both pollinators and members of a diverse insect community. Their consumption of nectar from flowers provides sustenance for themselves while supporting plant reproduction and ultimately contributing to the overall health and biodiversity of their habitats.

Parnassian Butterfly Conservation

IUCN and ESA Listing Designations

The Parnassian Butterfly is not currently listed under the IUCN or the Environmental Leadership Program. However, the conservation of these butterflies remains important due to their potentially significant role in cultural conservation and pollination.

Efforts and Programs

Various efforts have been initiated to conserve butterflies and their habitats. Some notable efforts include:

  • The Colorado Butterfly Monitoring Network, which works to protect butterfly populations and their habitats
  • Backyard Bug, a program that encourages individuals to create pollinator-friendly environments
  • National Honeybee Day, which raises awareness for the importance of pollinators, including butterflies
  • Bees for Elephants, a conservation program in Tanzania that promotes pollinator habitats to reduce human-elephant conflict

Rare species conservation: Parnassian butterflies, although not listed under the IUCN or ESA designations, are still considered rare species. Conservation efforts should keep their rarity in mind and work toward preserving their habitats and breeding grounds.

Pros and Cons of Conservation Methods

Methods Pros Cons
Habitat creation Helps conserve vulnerable species and supports ecosystems Resource-intensive, potential habitat loss of other species
Education and awareness Encourages eco-friendly practices and collaboration May not directly impact Parnassian butterflies

Key characteristics of Parnassian butterflies:

  • Brightly colored wings
  • Unique wing markings
  • Habitat: alpine meadows and rocky mountain slopes

By understanding these characteristics and implementing various conservation programs, we can help preserve the majestic Parnassian butterfly and its unique contribution to our ecosystems.

Unique Facts and Stories

Yellow, Red, and Orange Spots

The Parnassian butterfly has distinct yellow, red, or orange spots on its hindwings, making it easily recognizable. These colorful spots serve various purposes, such as:

  • Attracting mates
  • Camouflaging against predators
  • Mimicking other species for protection

Apollo Butterfly Comparisons

The Parnassian butterfly is often compared to the Apollo butterfly due to several similarities, including:

  • White wings with black markings
  • A wingspan of 1-2 inches
  • Females being larger than males

However, there are also notable differences between the two:

Feature Parnassian Butterfly Apollo Butterfly
Hindwing spots Yellow, red, or orange Red or orange
Habitat North America Europe and Asia
Conservation status Varies by species Endangered in some areas

Interesting Research and Media Appearances

Parnassian butterflies have been featured in various research and media events, for example:

  • Math at the Zoo: Shiran Hershovich, a mathematician, researched the flight patterns of Parnassian butterflies to develop mathematical models.
  • Annual Butterfly Quest: Dr. E.O. Wilson, a renowned biologist, leads an annual butterfly quest where participants can observe Parnassian butterflies in their natural habitats.
  • Channel 2 News: A segment on Channel 2 News featured the Parnassian butterfly during the Earth Day Global Cleanup event, highlighting their importance as pollinators.

The Parnassian butterfly is not only fascinating in terms of its appearance but also in the role it plays in various ecosystems. Through research, conservation efforts, and media coverage, society can further appreciate these beautiful creatures and their impact on our world.


  1. Alpine biogeography of Parnassian butterflies

  2. Alpine Parnassius Butterfly Dispersal

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, 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 – Apollo or Parnassian Caterpillar or Cucullia species???


parnassian instar
Hello Daniel,
Here are some pics of the earlier instar. I apologize that they are a little out of focus. I was having trouble with my camera at the time & had to send it in for repairs soon after. I will also send a few more in separate emails as we have had some problems with our server lately, if you send more than two at a time they disappear into cyberspace. … The Parnassian was found in Well County North Dakota. I cannot remember what year though. I am thinking it was around 2003-2004? I can look for my records if you need to know. It was also found in town & feeding on Dill & Parsley. This set pictures are of the instar just before the last.

Hi again Misty,
First, we really want to thank you for identifying an earlier Parnassian Caterpillar that we had misidentified on our site back in 2006. We are also thrilled to get your photos of both the earlier striped caterpillar instar and the final spotted instar. In an attempt to not add any more confusion, here is what we do know. Parnassian is the common name for all butterflies in the genus Parnassius. In Europe, this same genus is known as the Apollo Butterflies. The genus Parnassius is found in mountainous areas of the northern hemisphere where there are snowy winters. There are several North American species. Neither Parnassius clodius, nor Parnassius phoebus are listed as living in North Dakota in our Butterflies Through Binoculars (the West) book and P. clodius has the more western range. There is much variability in the adult coloration, which complicates identifications. BugGuide lists another species, Parnassius smintheus, the Rocky Mountain Parnassius that ranges “From New Mexico north along the Rocky Mountains and into southwest Alaska.” All that said, we are eager to get your update from the expert on the proper species identification of your specimen. Thank you so much for adding to the information on our site.

Update: Differing Opinion
Caterpillar Identifications
Thu, Dec 18, 2008 at 8:57 PM
The original ID of Cucullia intermedia (2006/01/20/probably-parnassus-butterfly-caterpillar-not- hooded-owlet-moth-caterpillar/ ) is probably correct, although moth caterpillars are not my area of expertise. In any case, these are not Parnassius larvae, which have fine black hairs (making them look somewhat velvety), all instars similar in appearance (black with rows of light spots), and feed on Sedum or Dicentra (not dill or parsley) locally. Please see this Parnassius smintheus from Idaho: . North American Parnassian cats are rarely encountered, so a number of Internet photos are regrettably misidentified (such as ).
I hope the above information is helpful.
Best wishes,
Keith Wolfe
aka “EarlyStages”

Letter 2 – Colorful Transparent: Parnassus Butterfly from Israel


Butterfly in Israel
Location: Zippori stream, Israel
January 4, 2012 10:02 am
Hello Bug people!
I was on a hike in Northern Israel last weekend (a great way to see off the old year and start the new), and during the hike I saw a couple of these butterflies playing around. I was lucky enought to shoot one of them just before it flew off.
Quick research tells me it is an Archon apollinus bellargus, of the papilionoidae family. A loose translation of its Hebrew name is the ’Colorful Transparent’.
Signature: Ben

Archon apollinus bellargus

Dear Ben,
We are positively thrilled to receive your image of the Colorful Transparent.  We were struck by its resemblance to members of the genus
Parnassus, sometimes called Apollo Butterflies, which sad to say are highly sought by collectors and becoming endangered in their high altitude habitats in the Palaearctic.  We suspect that they are taxonomically quite close to this lovely member of the same family.  We found support for your identification on TrekNature which states:  “One of the most primitive species of Papilionidae in Israel. It is the only specie in Israel which is active in the winter. its upper wings are bit transparent.”  It is also pictured on the Tree of Life website which states:  “Larvae of A. apollinus feed on species of Aristolochia (Aristolochiaceae).”

Letter 3 – Parnassian


one rare one…
Hi – Here’s maybe a new addition – seen in Southern Oregon – 5,000 ft. elevation… quite hard to find – parnassius phoebeus sternitzkyi – female.

Hi Ted,
We are thrilled to have received your photo of a Parnassian. We have gotten photos of the caterpillars, but this is the first adult. According to Jeffrey Glassberg, author of Butterflies Through Binoculars The West: “This distinctive group of swallowtails is restricted to northern climes. … After mating, males place a waxy cap, called a sphragis, over the females’ abdomen to prevent other males from mating. In Europe, this group is called Apollos. Most of the approximately 35 species are Eurasian, and since almost every mountain range has populations that look slightly different from the next mountain range, European and Japanese collectors have gone berserk in their pursuit of each variety, reportedly threatening the existence of some of them.” We also plan to post the photo of the Baltimore you sent in a different email.

Cool – there are common parnassians, then there are the rare ones. Sternitzkyi is among the rare and hard to find ones, not to mention one of the largest and ornately colored. Collectors and observers are very tight-lipped about where they find this bug – I found it in a remote colony that I would not share with anyone due to possible overzealous collectors… Your site is so cool – and so much fun!! Glad you could use a pic or two. I may have a few more rarities to email you…

Letter 4 – Parnassian Butterflies


phoebus parnassians
Sat, Oct 18, 2008 at 7:25 PM
hi daniel,
attached are male phoebus parnassian photo’s taken this past july. the one with the little dark hook like lines on the rear wing i believe is a high elevation parnassian.


the other two photo’s are also a male parnassian but according to glassberg they are low elevation. however i took the photo’s at roughly the same elevation (9,000 feet)but on different days.
enjoy, venice

Parnassian low elevation
Parnassian low elevation

Hi Again Venice,
We are always reluctant to post location photos for Parnassian Butterflies since they are endangered and since collectors are quite rabid about catching them.  The Phoebus Parnassian, Parnassius phoebus, is highly variable, and isolated populations are often quite different from other populations.  We would hate to have your mountain decended upon by Japanese and German butterfly collectors, but we are thrilled to post your gorgeous photos.


Letter 5 – Rocky Mountain Parnassian


phoebus parnassian?
Is Attachment 1 a sooty azure? So appreciate your help.

Hi Rose,
This is a Parnassian, but we are not certain what species. The Parnassians are found in both the mountainous areas of Western North America and Eurasia where they are called Apollos. The local populations of various species have much variablity and the same species might look quite different on neighboring mountains. With that said, you gave us no information. Your email is quite confusing. Did you also send a photo you believe to be a Sooty Azure? You did have Parnassian correct on the subject line. Where was the photo taken? Since collectors are rabid for the Parnassians, you don’t need to give us an exact location, but a general vicinity would be nice.

Follow-up on parnassian. The photo was taken in 1977 between Denver and Colorado Springs in the woods along County Line Road — a long time ago. From the web site “Moths & Butterflies” by Montana State Univ, I thought it might be a Sooty Azure. Thank you for verifying it as a Phoebus parnassian. I’m so grateful to my 4-year-old neighbor for referring me to your site, and thanks so much.

Update: (01/15/2008)
Hello Daniel:
Regarding: Parnassian (01/13/2008) phoebus parnassian?
More follow-up on the Colorado Parnassian. The pictured butterfly likely is a Phoebus Parnassian, at least it would have been when the photo was taken. The parnassians, like many other butterfly groups, have been subject to taxonomic revisions in recent years. Depending on where you are or what books you read, the “phoebus” of Colorado are now considered a subspecies (Parnassius phoebus smintheus) or a distinct species (P. smintheus). Either way it is now generally called the Rocky Mountain Parnassian or, in parts of Canada, the Smintheus Parnassian.

Letter 6 – Rocky Mountain Parnassian


Subject: Transparent-winged butterfly
Location: Mt. Bross 12,000ft elev.
September 7, 2014 12:27 pm
I shot this butterfly on Sept 6, 2014 on Mt. Bross in Park County, colorado at an elevation of about 12,000 ft. I think it’s a Rocky Mtn. Parnassus or maybe a Checkered White. Its wings were mostly clear and it appeared to have no trouble flying around for half an hour before i finally got a few shots if it resting. I’ve never seen a clear-winged butterfly before, do you think it’s a mutation or is it possible that the color somehow got washed off in all the rain we’ve been having this summer.
Signature: Bob

Rocky Mountain Parnassus
Rocky Mountain Parnassus

Hi Bob,
We agree that this is a Rocky Mountain Parnassian,
Parnassius phoebus, a species which Jeffrey Glassberg, in his book Butterflies Through Binoculars The West, calls the Phoebus Parnassian, though he acknowledges it has several subspecies including Parnassius phoebus smintheus.  According to BugGuide, the Rocky Mountain Parnassian is Parnassius smintheus, and BugGuide provides the following information:  “Antenna has alternate black and white rings. Upperside of forewing of females and most males with 2 red or yellow spots beyond the cell. In some males these spots are black.(1)  Often called by the name Parnassius phoebus, a closely related Eurasian species. Many people consider all North American populations to belong to that species, many prefer to separate them. Some authors split North American populations into more than one species; usually two or three, with the northernmost populations included in P. phoebus, and the rest in P. smintheus; or, the Sierra Nevada populations may be separated as Parnassius behrii. These regional ‘species’ are best distinguished by where they are found.”  Isolated populations often exhibit localized variations, so individuals on one mountain may look different from individuals on the next mountain.  Regarding the transparency, we believe this is a result of the loss of scales that might be a natural occurrence in the species as BugGuide includes many images of more transparent individuals.


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1 thought on “Parnassian Butterfly: All You Need to Know for Enthusiasts”

  1. Hi Ben,

    Beautiful Parnassid butterfly. The above answer was correct in my opinion. It is also true that collectors, of which I am one, love this genus of butterfly. So, next time your out for a walk this January, leave your camera at home and take a net with you instead, capture one for me and we’ll talk $$$. Just kidding, sort of……..


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