1. The extent to which flower colour and other visual cues influence butterfly flower choice in the field is poorly understood, especially in comparison with choices by Hymenoptera.
2. Using a novel approach to studies of visitation behaviour by butterflies, flower colour of four Asteraceae species was phenotypically manipulated to decouple the influence of that trait from others (including morphology and nectar rewards) on visitation by Lycaena heteronea, Speyeria mormonia, Cercyonis oetus, and Phyciodes campestris.
3. Flower visits were recorded to experimental flower arrays in subalpine meadows to measure (i) spontaneous preference by butterflies for particular colours and other traits and (ii) flower constancy (longer than expected strings of visits made to flowers of the same species), a behaviour that can reduce interspecific gene flow in plants.
4. Over three field seasons, 3558 individual flower visits in 1386 foraging bouts were observed for free-flying butterflies. All four butterfly species responded to the phenotypic manipulations of flower colour, although in different ways. Speyeria mormonia and L. heteronea also exhibited preferences based on other flower traits. Lycaena heteronea responded to combinations of traits such that the other traits it preferred depended upon the context of flower colour.
5. None of the butterfly species exhibited flower constancy in any of the arrays employed.
6. The observed preferences show that butterflies, like some other pollinators, are potentially capable of exerting selection on colour and other floral traits. Moreover, these flower preferences can depend on the context of other flower traits. The absence of constancy contrasts with reports of high constancy in many bees.