What are Skippers?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Skippers are insects in the order Lepidoptera, which also includes butterflies and moths. Members of this large insect order can be found all over the world, and many people are particularly interested in them because some representatives of this order are strikingly beautiful, with distinctive coloration which makes them very easy to identify. They are less brilliantly colored than their butterfly relatives, but they are still a topic of interest for some people.


At first glance, a skipper can look a great deal like a butterfly. Like butterflies, skippers have six legs, and two sets of wings used for flight. They tend to favor environments with lots of flowers, feeding on pollen and nectar, and they are diurnal, active during the day and sleeping at night. They reproduce by laying eggs which hatch into larvae, and the larvae spin cocoons for incubation before developing into adults.

There are some distinct differences between skippers and butterflies which can be used to distinguish between the two. One defining characteristic of the skipper is its flight, which tends to be very darting, with the insects seeming to skip from place to place — which is where their name comes from.

Physically, there are a few differences between these insects and butterflies, which can be seen upon careful inspection. The antennae of skippers are smooth, rather than lightly feathered, and they hook backward, rather than clubbing at the ends. Each of these types of insects hold their wings differently as well, with skippers holding their wings at different angles so that both wings in each pair can be easily seen. Skippers also have muscular, stocky bodies when compared with slender butterflies.

Skippers have their own family, Hesperiidae, within the Lepidoptera order. There are around 3,500 species, all-told, and more are constantly being identified. Much to the frustration of biologists, many of these insects look alike, making it extremely hard to identify them reliably. It is important to have a very good eye when identifying skippers, as subtle differences can place specimens in entirely different genera or species.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Vinzenzo -- most people probably wouldn't care about what skippers are, but you can bet that butterfly gardeners want to know. Let's say there is a skipper in your area that you find appealing and you want to put in plants to attract it. If you don't know whether it is a skipper or butterfly, how can you plant the plants to attract it?

That's probably the main reason you want to know the difference, but it seems there may be some others.


Most people won't know the difference between a butterfly and a skipper. Heck, even some moths can be confused for butterflies. That being the case, why is it important for the average Joe or Jane to know what a skipper is?

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