Butterflies are a natural part of most environments. They are attractive, but also useful insects to have around. Butterflies provide an important food source for other animals. Their eggs are eaten by birds, reptiles, and mammals in the area. These creatures, in turn, also eat other insects and keep their populations in check. Butterflies themselves eat mostly nectar from flowers, which means that they participate in the pollination of flowering plants, a crucial job in most ecosystems. The caterpillars of some species eat pestilent insects, like aphids.
As with all components of your local ecosystem, it is well worth your time and effort to ensure that butterflies are attracted to and become a part of your garden or property. Butterflies suffer population losses, as do other animals that we need such as honeybees and bats. Whatever you can do to ensure that they take up residence and thrive in your neighborhood will be good for your local environment. And, of course, butterflies are pretty and fun to watch.
The Life Cycle of the Butterfly
A butterfly begins life as an egg that was laid either by itself or in a cluster by an adult butterfly. How the eggs are laid depends on the species. A caterpillar eventually emerges from the egg, and it munches through its eggshell and then some of the leaves on its host plant. Most caterpillars outgrow and shed their skin about five times during this stage. When the caterpillar is fully grown, it looks for a nice place to stay for a while, like the underside of a leaf. Here it turns into a pupa or a chrysalis and remains for some time, motionless. Eventually, the adult butterfly or the imago emerges from the chrysalis and flies off to feed.
Adult butterflies feed on nectar from flowers and drink water from puddles and bird baths by means of its proboscis. This is the long tube that extends from the butterfly’s head. The butterfly uses it like a straw to suck up nectar and water with any nutrients that come with the fluids. This means that to keep these lovely insects happy, you will need to provide them with nectar and standing water.
Creating a Haven for Butterflies
You probably already have flowers in your garden, and this is your target’s primary food source. However, attracting and keeping an array of butterflies is not as simple as having a few flowers around. Sure, what you have already will probably attract some, but to get the full contingent of these lovely insects, there is much more to consider.
- Find the right location. Just any old place on your property or in your garden will not do for butterflies. They require sun and shelter. Pick a location that gets a lot of sun, but that will be sheltered from the wind. Butterflies are attracted to areas where it is easy to fly, which means warm and calm air. You also have to balance that shelter with visibility. You don’t want to hide the garden so that they can’t see it.
- Food. Give your new residents plenty of food. This means planting masses of attractive flowers. Don’t rely on single plants or small clusters of flowers. Butterflies cannot see small groups of flowers very well from a distance. Create large masses of flowers to be sure they see your garden as an attractive food source. They also are drawn to brightly colored flowers, so avoid white or dark colors.
- Water. Butterflies like to congregate around and drink from standing water. Give them a small pool of water to drink from or create depressions in the ground to collect water.
- No poisons! Don’t use any insecticides in your butterfly garden. Even the most seemingly benign insecticides can harm and kill your flying friends. They can be especially harmful to caterpillars.
- Feed your caterpillars. The caterpillars of most butterfly species feed on a limited number of types of plants. Research the butterflies that are native to your area and find out what kinds of plants you will need to produce butterflies from caterpillars. Most caterpillars of butterfly species do not cause significant damage when they eat, unlike moth caterpillars, so don’t worry about destruction.
Butterflies’ Favorite Plants
There are plenty of different types of flowering plants from which butterflies eat and in which they will lay their eggs. You can find out what flowers specific species enjoy, or just create a hodgepodge of flowers that will attract a variety of types of butterflies. The latter will be easier, but if you are interested in a certain species, you can cater to it as well. For instance, monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on milkweed plants, so if you want to see these beautiful black and orange insects in your garden, you must have milkweed. To attract red admiral or satyr comma butterflies to your garden, be sure to have stinging nettle. These colorful butterflies solely lay eggs on stinging nettle.
Some butterflies are less choosey and will lay eggs on various plants. For example, the painted lady, which is a brown and orange butterfly with white spots, will lay eggs on sunflowers, hollyhock, thistle, burdock, or pearly everlasting. Brown elfin butterflies like azaleas and rhododendrons. Other butterflies like to lay their eggs in trees. Mourning cloaks (burgundy, yellow, and blue butterflies) lay eggs on the leaves of cotton wood, elm, birch, and willow trees, while pine whites use fir, pine, and hemlock. Many of the egg-laying plants are either large, like trees and shrubs, or not terribly attractive. You need not keep these in your butterfly garden, but if they are on your property, you can be sure that you will have butterflies around to attract to your flowers.
Once butterflies have emerged from their chrysalis, they are less picky about eating. While the caterpillars tend to eat from just one plant, butterflies will sip nectar wherever they can get it. This does not mean, however, that any flower will do. A butterfly can only eat from a flower with short tubes so that it can get its proboscis down to the nectar. If it is too deep, the butterfly cannot feed.
The butterfly bush is a popular plant for attracting butterflies. The name says it all! The plant has clusters of small flowers. This means that a butterfly can spend its time on one cluster and get plenty of nectar. It does not have to fly away to find another flower. The individual flowers in the cluster are small enough to allow the butterfly to get to the nectar. These are the kinds of properties that make a flowering plant great for butterflies. The same description could be given for butterfly weed, Joe Pye weed, golden rod, and verbena.
In addition to the specifics mentioned above, there are many other plants and flowers that are beneficial for and attractive to butterflies. These include aster, dogbane, mallow, vetch, black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, zinnia, clover, violet, mustard, buddleia, blueberry, and blackberry. A few butterfly species will feed on fruit rather than nectar. The hackberry emperor and the tawny emperor are two examples. They will also feed on sap, dung, and carrion. If you want to attract some of these butterflies to your, consider putting some of your overripe fruits out in the garden.
Whether you create an entire garden just for attracting butterflies or simply put in more flowering plants that they will like, you will be sure to see the results of your efforts. With the right plants, you will be rewarded with an abundance of beautiful butterflies to enjoy.
©2012 Off the Grid News