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Butterfly Gardening

Butterflies can be a welcome addition to your home and surroundings. Not only do their bright colors add excitement to our lives, but they are also effective crop and flower pollinators, play an important role in the food chain, and are sensitive indicators of environmental quality. A variety of wildflowers & flowering shrubs are all it really takes to produce a butterfly garden. However, to attract the greatest number and variety of these beautiful creatures, plants that serve all the life stages of butterflies must be provided.

All of the approximately 760 different butterflies in the U. S. and Canada follow the same general life cycle. The cycle begins with eggs, laid in spring, summer or fall. Once hatched the tiny larvae (or caterpillars) molt 4 to 5 times, before enveloping themselves in a cocoon or chrysalis undergoes metamorphosis and emerges as an adult butterfly. The entire process takes an average of 5 to 6 weeks. Some butterflies go through only one cycle or generation each year. Some, however, may have 2 and even 3 generations in a single season.

The butterfly’s life cycle requires food for both the larval and adult stages. Often the food for the larval stage is the most critical. Thus, many butterflies lay their eggs on or near the plants upon which the larvae feed. Most caterpillars eat the leafy parts of their host plants, but, depending on the species, may prefer flowers, weeds, vines, shrubs or trees.

Unlike the finicky caterpillars, adult butterflies may take nectar from many different plants. Nectar is sipped through a long, straw-like proboscis that is normally kept coiled. The insects’ feet possess a special sensing structure which can detect or “taste” sweet liquids, causing the proboscis to uncoil when in contact with nectar.

Butterflies frequent wildflowers as well as cultivated annuals and perennials. The three most important floral characteristics that attract butterflies to a flower are a copious supply of nectar, a blossom with large petals so that the insect can perch while feeding, and flower color. Butterflies seem to investigate purple flowers first, the yellow, pink and finally white.

Butterfly Magnets are:

  • Spring: lilacs, azaleas, violets, phlox
  • Summer: clovers, veggies and herbs, daisies, coneflowers, milkweeds, butterflyweed, sunflowers
  • Fall: ironweed, native thistles, joe-pye-weed, asters, golden-rods, bee balm, butterfly bush, mint, cardinal flowers, vetch, nettles, yarrow

Although their most popular food source is nectar, not all adult butterflies are nectar feeders. Some prefer to "puddle". Puddling is usually done by newly emergent males which gather to take moisture and minerals from damp sand, mud puddles or stream banks. Often a garden pool will attract butterflies to the water’s edge. A number of species will also seeks nourishment from the moisture in animals waste or carrion.

In order to encourage butterflies to your backyard, there are several facets with which you need to be familiar. First, learn the names of the local butterflies, their life cycles, food preferences, the places they hibernate, seek cover and pupate, and identify the plants suitable for egg laying. This all can be accomplished through the use of field guides, such as The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies by Robert Pyle or Butterflies East of the Great Plains by Paul Opler and George Krizek.

Once you have established which butterflies you want to attract and the plants that will entice them, gather and sow the desired plant seeds ensuring the proper growing conditions for each plant type. Sun and shade relationships should be assessed, as well as plant groupings. Even with limited space you can still create a world for butterflies. Many preferred food plants make attractive borders, can be planted in cool shady spots (such as violets) or, as in the case of vines, be trained to archways and fences, thus expanding your garden your garden requires constant patience and evaluation.

If the area you select is already a natural area, few alterations may be required. Open places such as meadows are subject to natural succession an may need to be mowed periodically to keep out brush. Only a section should be mowed in any one year so as not to upset the established life cycles of butterflies in unmowed sections. Situating your butterfly garden near a woodland may also attract more species.

Several potions may be used to attract butterflies and moths. One favorite can be made as follows: 1 bottle of beer spiked with banana, several tablespoons of brown sugar and molasses, ½ cup of raisins and several apple slices. Homogenize the mixture in a blender and store it in a loosely capped bottle for several days. Once the mixture has fermented it is ready for use. For moths, liberally brush on tree trunks. To attract butterflies, soak a sponge in a bowl and place it in broken sunlight or open shade. A slight breeze will broadcast the aroma.

There is no secret formula – but the more time you spend butterfly gardening and the more willing you are to experiment, the more accurately you will be able to assess your butterflies’ needs. Butterfly gardening can be a new and enjoyable pastime–as well as enhancing your surroundings and the quality of your environment.

Click here to download the Butterfly Gardening brochure

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