A great source of enjoyment
Adams County Master Gardener
Butterfly gardens are a great source of enjoyment. They can extend to interest youth in nature by providing a small window of native inhabitants of the local
First, let’s look at the life cycle and basic anatomy of a butterfly. Butterflies begin their life as an egg, laid either singly or in clusters depending on the species. Tiny caterpillars emerge and, after consuming their eggshell, they feeding on
host plants. Caterpillars must crawl out of their skin or molt, usually around five times, before changing into a pupa. Finally, an adult butterfly emerges, spreads its wings and flies away. This type of development is complete metamorphosis.
Adult butterflies and moths have mouthparts shaped into a long, coiled tube. Forcing blood into the tube straightens it out, allowing butterflies to feed on liquids. Butterflies get all their food from this tube, which limits them to nectar and
standing water. Larvae, on the other hand, have chewing mouthparts that they use to skeletonize or totally defoliate leaves. Butterflies have large, rounded compound eyes that allow them to see in all directions without turning their head. Like most insects, butterflies are
very nearsighted, and are more attracted to large stands of a particular flower than those planted singly. They see polarized light (which tells the direction the sun is pointing) as well as ultraviolet light, which are present on many flowers and guide them to nectar
sources. Butterflies also have a very well developed sense of smell from their antennae. All butterflies' antennae are club-shaped, as opposed to moths, which can be many shapes but often are feathery.
Different species of butterflies have different preferences of nectar, in both colors and tastes. A wide variety of food plants will give the greatest diversity of visitors. Try staggering wild and cultivated plants, as well as blooming times of the
day and year. Groups of the same plants will be easier for butterflies to see than singly planted flowers.
Some varieties of flowers will be more attractive to many species of butterflies. The list of butterfly attracting plants is endless. Some plants that are easily grown in Zone 6 include, but are not limited to: Bee Balm, Black-eyed Susan, Blue Mist
Shrub, Egyptian Star-Cluster, Garden Phlox, Hyssop, Joe-Pye Weed, Purple Coneflower, Swamp Alyssum Sweet Alyssum, Zinnias and a myriad of others.
Another way to attract adult butterflies to your yard is to offer places for females to lay their eggs. Some females are pickier about which host to lay their eggs on than others.
Some caterpillars, like sulphers, are camouflaged, or blend into their surroundings very well. If caterpillars are eating excessive foliage from a prominent or desirable part of a plant, try moving them to the backside or another less noticeable
portion of the plant.
All insects are cold-blooded and cannot internally regulate their body temperature. Butterflies will readily bask in the sun when it is warm out, but few are seen on cloudy days. It is a good idea to leave open areas in a yard for butterflies to sun
themselves, as well as partly shady areas like trees or shrubs, so they can hide when it's cloudy or cool off if it is very hot.
Butterflies also like puddles. Males of several species congregate at small rain pools, forming puddle clubs. Permanent puddles are very easy to make by burying a bucket to the rim, filling it with gravel or sand, and then pouring in liquids such as
stale beer, sweet drinks or water. Overripe fruit, allowed to sit for a few days is a very attractive substance as well.
Follow along with me in my next installment where we will discuss the preferred nectars and larval food plants that will guarantee attracting and retaining the butterfly of your choice.
Let’s review why butterflies visit a garden. They are searching for the basic necessities of life as they know it. Food, shelter and comfort are the ingredients needed to attract and maintain these flying flowers. Most adult butterflies need nectar
for substance and host plants for the females to lay their eggs upon. The host plants will provide food for the immature caterpillars during the early stages of metamorphosis.
Butterflies need to warm their bodies before they can become active. To do this, they often sit on a reflective surface such as a flat stone, spread their wings, and turn their backs to the sun. Their wings work like solar panels, absorbing the sun’s
warmth that is then transferred to their bodies. Butterflies like bright sunny areas protected from high winds. Could it be a coincidence that the plants they prefer relish this same protection from the wind? Hmm…I see a pattern formulating. Select an area around your yard
that has at least six hours of sun each day. If you are fortunate enough to own an extremely large yard, you also can plan a garden that consists of separate sections that are not adjacent to each other.
Nectar plants are plants with flowers that produce the sweet fluid that many insects, including butterflies, use as food. Most butterflies must land in order to get to the nectar. They prefer plants having either clusters of short tubular flowers, or
flowers with large, flat petals. Butterflies are active from early spring through frost, and having a mix of plants in your garden that flower throughout this entire time will attract them all season long.
An important item to keep in mind when selecting your plantings is that butterflies are insects. Like most insects, butterflies are nearsighted. OK. Here comes the dreaded quiz. What does the fact that butterflies are nearsighted have to do with
planting? Give up? Large stands of a particular flower will be sighted more easily by the butterfly than would a single flower. Flower colors play an important role in this hide and seek game. Most butterflies prefer plants that have pink, red, purple, yellow or orange
flowers. Butterflies appear to be attracted to areas with large masses of a single color, or closely related colors, rather than gardens with many colors mixed together.
There are some butterflies that rarely feed on nectar and will only visit a garden if it has some extra touches, such as rotten fruit. The best fruits are those that are either soft, such as banana or moist, like watermelon. You may want to make sure
that these items are in a protected area as they sometimes attract wasps as well as butterflies.
So how about those host plants mentioned earlier. Since caterpillars can not travel far to find their own food, the female locates and lays her eggs on only the type of plant that the caterpillar can use as food. Most species of caterpillars are
particular about the type of plants they can eat. If the egg was not placed on the correct plant, the caterpillar hatching from that egg will not survive. Many native trees and other plants found in and around our yards are host plants for caterpillars.
However, there are a variety of plants that can be included in a garden that are excellent host plants. Young caterpillars have a voracious appetite. If you provide the vitals, they will obligingly feast. Most of us do not like to see plants in our
gardens that have been chewed on by insects. To avoid this, you may want to locate host plants in areas that are not highly visible, or in a separate garden area a short distance from the nectar plants. However, if you do not provide host plants, you will have fewer
As I mentioned in my previous article, an abundance of nectar and larval food plants will provide a cornucopia of substance for butterflies. As promised; here are my favorite attractant plant foods and the associated butterflies that are attracted to
- Buckeye Butterfly – Their chosen larval food plants are plantains (Plantago species) and snapdragon. For nectar plants use aster, milkweed chickory or coreopsis.
- Mourning Cloak – For larval food chose from willow, elm (Ulmus species), poplar, aspen, birch and hackberry. Proven nectars are rotting fruit and sap, butterfly bush and milkweed.
- Monarch - The larval food most prized by these beauties is milkweed (Asclepias species). How convenient of nature to assign milkweed as a favorite nectar plant for the monarch. They also dine on butterfly bush, goldenrod, thistle, ironweed and
- Tiger swallowtail – Suggested larval plant food for these wonders are cherry laurel, black cherry, wild plums (Prunus species ). The attracting and retaining nectars of choice are butterfly bush, milkweed, Japanese honeysuckle, phlox, lilac and
Start your butterfly garden with the suggested plantings and you can grow beyond this list to an almost infinite number of species. Although it is nice to have butterflies and their caterpillars in your garden, it is even better if you know who is
who. Once you have determined which butterflies suit your fancy, you can attract them and retain them with the correct environment. Two great identification books for beginners are:
- Peterson First Guides: Butterflies and moths by Paul A. Opler
- Peterson First Guides: Caterpillars by Amy Bartlett Wright
For more information, visit North American Butterfly Association website at www.naba.org
Read other articles on gardening techniques
Read other articles by John Shaffer