Butterflies are colorful, diverse, abundant, and active during the day in warm months, making them an ideal pursuit for wildlife watchers. Butterflies and caterpillars provide food for birds and other animals and pollinate flowers. Also, butterflies are easy to attract to a garden or backyard landscape if a few simple principles are followed.
Butterflies have a complex life cycle.
Diversity of Caterpillar Host Plants – Butterflies have a complex life cycle that begins as an egg that hatches into a caterpillar. The caterpillar is the larval stage in the life cycle. After weeks of eating, a caterpillar molts into a mummy-like stage with a hard protective casing, called a pupa or chrysalis. After about 2 weeks, the adult emerges from the chrysalis and begins searching for food and a mate to begin the cycle again. The adult female butterfly seeks out a specific host plant to lay its eggs because butterfly caterpillars are voracious but picky eaters, and many species of caterpillar feed only on a particular species of plant. For example, the monarch caterpillar feeds only on the foliage of milkweed. Therefore, it’s important to provide a good diversity of native host plants to attract a wide variety of butterflies and their caterpillars. A landscape comprised of mostly exotic plants might attract nectaring adults but it will not provide the specific food needs of caterpillars.
American lady butterflies nectar at blooming plants throughout the year.
Early and Late Blooming Nectar Plants – Because different species of butterfly are active from early spring through late fall, provide a diversity of plants that will bloom and provide nectar throughout the growing season.
Large butterflies like the tiger swallowtail nectar at larger blooms.
Flowers of Different Sizes and Depths – As adults, butterflies are much less specialized than caterpillars and will visit many different plant species as they seek out nectar. However, small butterflies tend to nectar at flowers with small blooms while larger butterflies tend to nectar from large flower blooms. Smaller butterflies, such as hairstreaks and skippers, have shorter proboscises (a straw-like “tongue”) and are unable to reach the nectar in larger blooms. Larger butterflies, such as swallowtails, favor larger blooms.
Small butterflies like the red-banded hairstreak nectar at small blooms.
Sunny Location – Most butterflies are active only in the sun and many butterfly larval and nectar plants require sunny habitats.
Puddling Areas – Male butterflies often congregate at “puddling” areas, which include mud puddles, moist soil along stream banks, and animal feces. There they ingest the salts important in sperm production. Make puddling easy for male butterflies by designing water puddles and wet, sandy areas into the habitat.
Winter Habitats – Most species of butterflies survive the winter by hibernating as caterpillars, pupae, or adults. A few spend the winter as eggs. Fewer still migrate to warmer climates.
• To provide areas for adults to spend the winter, leave snags (standing dead trees) or brush piles in your landscape. There is little evidence to suggest that butterflies actually use butterfly houses.
• Throughout the growing season and in the fall, leave dead flower heads and dead foliage on your plants or you may accidentally remove eggs or pupating butterflies.
Ripe or Rotting Fruit – Peelings and cores of fruit (peeled, overly ripe bananas work well) can be discarded in partially shaded nooks in the garden where they will attract butterflies that eat rotting fruit. Butterfly species that eat old fruit or tree sap include question mark, eastern comma, and hackberry emperor.
Allocate some individual plants for feeding black swallowtail caterpillars.
Minimize Use of Pesticides – Chemicals that kill insect pests also kill butterflies and other beneficial insects. If caterpillars are eating your favorite plants (e.g., black swallowtail caterpillars are eating your parsley), allocate a few individual plants as host plants. Remove and relocate caterpillars from other individual plants to the ones dedicated as host plants.
Do Not Release Store-Bought Butterflies – Released butterflies can spread diseases to the native butterfly population. Also, they may interbreed with the native population, causing genetic problems or interfering with natural migration patterns. Generally, exotic butterflies die quickly.
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