How To Attract Butterflies To Your Garden
If you want a garden full of fluttering monarchs, swallowtails, and fritillaries, follow these
10 tips for attracting butterflies to your backyard.
A butterfly garden is more than a flower bed. To attract butterflies to your backyard,
you need to provide more than just pollen.
Butterflies are the ultimate sun worshipers. If you've spent any time observing butterflies
at all, you know they spend some of their time basking in the sunshine. Like all insects,
butterflies are ectotherms, meaning they can't regulate their body temperatures
Butterflies rely on the sun's energy to warm their bodies so they can function.
This is especially important on cooler days, because butterflies can't fly
when the temperatures dip below about 55° Fahrenheit. You'll see a butterfly perched
on a rock or leaf in a sunny spot, with its wings extended, warming up its flight muscles.
When you're planning your butterfly habitat, think about providing good basking spots
in the sunniest areas of your yard.
In addition, most good nectar plants require partial to full sun. Plant your butterfly
garden in an area that gets a solid 6 hours or more of sunshine every day. Pay attention
to the seasonal changes, too. The best site for a butterfly garden will get lots of sun
from early spring to late fall, not just in the summer months.
Little Yellow Butterfly
If your backyard is subject to breezy conditions, think about how you can provide the
butterflies with protection from the wind. If it takes a lot of energy for the butterflies to
battle the wind currents in your backyard habitat, the site won't be as beneficial to them
for gathering nectar.
Try to site your nectar and host plants where the house, a fence, or a line of trees will
buffer the wind. If needed, provide a windbreak by planting taller shrubs or trees to
block the prevailing winds from your butterfly garden.
Mourning Cloak Butterfly
The key to attracting butterflies is nectar, and lots of it. Butterflies that overwinter as
adults need nectar sources early in the season, and fall migrants, like monarchs,
need plenty of nectar to fuel their long journeys south. It's easy to provide nectar in
the summer, when most flowers are in bloom, but does your backyard offer nectar
sources in March, or October?
Try these Nectar Plants For Butterflies,
many of which bloom late in the season. And while butterfly bush does bloom for a long time
and attract a lot of butterflies, keep in mind that it's an exotic, invasive plant that should
probably be avoided.
Butterflies are diverse creatures, and they require diverse sources of food. Large
butterflies, like swallowtails and monarchs, prefer large, flat flowers that give them
a good-sized landing area. Smaller butterflies, such as hairstreaks, coppers, and
metalmarks, have shorter proboscises. They won't be able to drink from the deep
nectaries of large flowers. When choosing flowers for your butterfly garden, try to
pick a variety of flower shapes, colors, and sizes to meet the needs of different
butterflies. Plants with clusters of smaller flowers (milkweeds, for example) will
attract butterflies of all sizes.
Butterflies are rather near-sighted. Once they get within 10-12 feet of an object, they
can see it quite well, but at a distance most things appear blurred. Butterflies are quite
good at discriminating colors, and can even see reds (unlike bees, which cannot).
What does this mean for your butterfly habitat? To attract the most butterflies, you
should plant your nectar plants in masses. Large areas of the same color will be
easier for the butterflies to see from a distance, and will encourage them to come
in for a closer look.
Northern Blue Butterfly
If it's a true butterfly habitat, your garden will include a number of different host plants
for caterpillars. Remember, you need to feed the larvae, too, not just the adult butterflies.
Female butterflies will cruise your garden,\ looking for places to lay their eggs.
Some species are specialists, requiring host plants from a particular genus or family.
Other butterflies aren't as picky, and will deposit eggs on a range of plants. Many
caterpillars feed on trees and shrubs, rather than herbaceous plants, so include
some woody plants in your habitat. As a bonus, they'll provide shelter for overwintering
or roosting butterflies, too. Consult a good list of
Caterpillar Host Plants before
planting your butterfly habitat.
Butterflies need to drink, but they can't do so from birdbaths or fountains. Instead,
they get their water by taking up moisture from mud puddles. Butterflies also get
important minerals by drinking their water from puddles. Males pass these nutrients
on to females through their sperm.
A complete butterfly habitat will include one or more puddling sites. Sink a dish tub
or bucket in the ground, fill it with sand, and make sure to wet the sand down with
your garden hose each day. If you use drip irrigation to water your garden beds,
this can also provide puddling sites for butterflies.
Orange-barred Sulphur Butterfly
People who love butterflies often love songbirds, too. While creating a backyard
wildlife habitat for both birds and bugs is a great thing to do, you do need to think
of the predator-prey relationships in your yard. Remember, birds prey on insects!
If you place a birdbath right in the middle of your butterfly garden, you're providing
one stop shopping for hungry birds. Consider placing any bird feeders or birdbaths
in a separate area of your yard, just so it isn't quite so easy for birds to find the
smorgasbord of caterpillars in your garden.
We tend to think of butterflies as summer insects. Ever wonder,
Where Do Butterflies Go In Winter? Yes,
monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico, but most of our butterflies survive the winter
by going into a state of diapause, and simply hiding out until warm weather returns.
Butterflies and moths may overwinter in any of their four life stages, depending on
the family or genus. Swallowtails usually wait out the winter weather in the pupal
stage, tucked away inside a chrysalis in a protected location. Many tiger moths,
most notably the Isabella tiger moth which goes by the nickname woolly bear as a
caterpillar, overwinter in the larval stage. A number of butterflies – the mourning
cloak, the question mark, and the eastern comma among them – survive the cold
in the adult stage, by simply tucking themselves under loose bark or hiding inside
a tree cavity.
Powershiek Skipperling Butterfly
So what does this mean for your butterfly habitat? Think about how you can provide
winter shelter for butterflies and moths in different life stages. Hint: don't rake all your
leaves! Leave the fall leaf litter in at least part of your yard for hibernating caterpillars.
Brush piles and stored firewood also makes excellent shelter for overwintering
This one should be obvious, right? If you're trying to support insect life in your
backyard, you don't want to use chemicals or other substances that kill them.
Providing habitat is a bit different than gardening for aesthetics. Caterpillars need
foliage to feed on, so you'll have to be tolerant of leaves with holes, or even plants
that have been defoliated in some cases. Some caterpillars will even feed on the
plants you intended to eat yourself, like dill or fennel (which are the host plants for
black swallowtail larvae). Learn to share. Plant some extra so there's enough for
you and the caterpillars.
Butterflies and Moths of North America
Southern Wisconsin Butterfly Assn (NABA)
The Butterfly Site