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Giant Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio cresphontes) feeding on white wildflowers

What Do Butterflies Eat and Drink?

Excerpted from: Bird + Wild

If you’re trying to attract more butterflies to your yard you’ll know that offering food is always a great way to do this. In order to better understand what they eat, we have to understand how they eat.

  How Do Butterflies Eat?

Butterflies have a long tongue, called a proboscis, which they can curl and uncurl to drink through like a straw. Because of their straw-like mouthparts, butterflies are mainly restricted to a liquid diet.

Butterflies use their proboscis to drink sweet nectar from flowers. Nectar sometimes resides deep within a flower and the proboscis allows the butterfly to reach this sugary treat.

What’s a Proboscis?

Butterflies do not have mouths. Instead, they have a proboscis extending from the front of their head, a straw-like tube that coils up when not in use. Butterflies eat by extending the proboscis deep into a flower to sip nectar. Butterflies also use the proboscis to drink water and juice from rotting fruits.

  Adult Butterfly Diet

Adult butterflies mainly eat flower nectar. They can also find sources of nectar from vegetables, herbs, and fruit blossoms. Butterflies may also get energy from eating fruit juice, sugar water, tree sap, fungi, and organic matter from animals.

Male butterflies need a source of salt and minerals and will get this from drinking muddy water.

Read More: Caterpillar Host and Adult Butterfly Nectar Plants
Read More: How To Make A Butterfly Feeder

  Nectar

Butterfly drinking water.
Butterfly Drinking Water

Nectar is the main food source for all butterfly species. Sugars in nectar give the butterflies enough energy to move around and mate and lay eggs. Butterflies will be attracted to nectar-producing plants. The benefit to plants is that the butterfly will help to pollinate these plants as they move around.

Floral Nectar. Flowers can purposely make themselves attractive to butterflies. They do this using their shape, size, scent, and colorings. Butterflies are programmed to know that a big, bright, sweet-smelling flower will have a good source of nectar inside. Butterflies have a preference for composite flowers. These are the flowers that are shaped with a large flat middle and petals fanning out.

Vegetable Nectar. Vegetable plants also do their best to attract butterflies. They do this with nectar-producing blossoms on their plants. The butterflies will then feed on the nectar and help with the cross-pollination of vegetables. Common vegetables that have butterfly-friendly blossoms are zucchini, squash, pumpkins and radishes.

Herbal Nectar. Like vegetables, you’ll find a whole variety of herb plants that have nectar-producing flowers. These flowers are often the perfect shape for butterflies to land on a feed. Herbs can attract two of the most popular butterflies: the swallowtail and the monarch. Common herbs that have butterfly-friendly blossoms are fennel, dill, parsley and chives.

  Water

Butterflies Eating Fruit.
Butterflies Eating Fruit

Desiccation is a problem for most insects and can cause them to quickly dehydrate and die in the heat. Drinking water helps to mitigate this. They can drink from pools and waterbodies, however, other sources such as dew and raindrops are also regularly used.

  Fruit

Butterflies love to eat fruit. There are 2 ways that butterflies enjoy eating fruit.

Fruit Nectar. Flower trees and plants produce nectar-filled blossoms that butterflies like to feed on. You may not notice butterflies visiting fruit blossoms as much as other flowers. That’s because fruit blossoms are only around for a really short period in springtime, and some butterflies may be hibernating. Common fruit blossoms that are butterfly-friendly are apples, pears, peaches and plums.

Fruit Juice. Butterflies love to eat fruit. They don’t have the mouthparts to chew the fruit flesh. So instead they drink the juices from the fruit. Fruit juice is very similar to nectar for butterflies. It’s sugary to provide energy and high in water to hydrate them. Butterflies like sweet, watery fruits such as strawberries, watermelon and grapefruit.

  Mud

Butterfly mud puddling.
Butterfly Mud 'Puddling'

Butterflies like to drink from muddy puddles as it’s an excellent source of essential nutrients. Mud is mostly made up of salts, protein, nitrogen, and amino acids that keep butterflies healthy. Both male and female butterflies will be seen puddling. Although male butterflies need to do this to restore nutrients last in the mating process.

  Tree Sap

Not all butterflies will rely on nectar as a food source. Some species such as the huckleberry butterfly prefer to eat tree sap. Tree sap is high in sugar which gives the butterflies energy. Tree sap also contains other nutrients such as nitrogen, salt, mineral, and amino acids. Butterflies cannot access the tree sap themselves. They need to rely on other insects, animals, or birds to break through the tree bark first. Common sap filled trees that attract butterflies are oak, maple, ash and willow.

Further Information:

 Butterflies and Moths of North America
 WisconsinButterflies.org
 Southern Wisconsin Butterfly Assn (NABA)
 The Butterfly Site

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