Friday, May 24, 2013

So, You Want Butterflies?

I hear people say, “I want butterflies, but, they never come to my yard.”  A garden needs plants for ALL the phases of a butterfly’s life. When I ask if they kill caterpillars, they invariably say, “Only the ones that are eating my plants.” 

Gardening is a little give and take adventure and it also applies to enticing butterflies to your gardens. 

Here are the rules:

·      Caterpillars are a necessary portion of a butterfly’s life cycle.

·      You cannot use insecticide and have butterflies.  They are very sensitive to chemicals; sensitive as in “dead.”

·      They will eat on their favorite host plant at that particular point in their life cycle.  Plant enough for you and your beautiful friends.  Seldom does it kill a plant.

·      The more flowers you have during the entire blooming season, the more butterflies you will have. 

Giant Swallowtail
Butterflies do not plan their lives around your viewing or picture taking.  They plan their lives around food, water, shelter and procreation. 

·      They need a source for water, mud or wet sand.

·      They need protection from high winds and a place to bed down.

Illinois has 62 different butterflies.  Some are dramatic and others aren’t.    This doesn’t include moths.  Most of us can’t provide and sustain every variety in our gardens.  Most of us can’t even identify them all because of the subtle differences or rarity.  Following are a few of the more obvious because of their beauty.

Eastern Black 
Black Swallowtail:  The caterpillar eats the leaves of host plants in the parsley family (including Queen Anne’s lace, carrot, celery and dill.)   The adult butterfly sips nectar from flowers including red clover, milkweed and thistles.

Red Admiral
Admiral:  The caterpillar eats leaves from many species of trees and shrubs including wild cherry, aspen, poplar, cottonwood, oaks, hawthorn, deerberry, birch, willows, basswood and shadbush.   The adult butterfly eats flowing sap, rotting fruit, carrion, dung and occasionally nectar from white flowers including spirea, privet and viburnum.  White admirals also sip aphid honeydew.

Emperor:  The caterpillar eats leaves from various hackberries, sugarberry and elms.  The adult butterfly sips sap, rotting fruit, dung and carrion.  They can also be seen sipping moisture at wet spots along roads and streams.

Monarch and Queen:  The caterpillar eats the host plants of several kinds of milkweed.  Adult butterflies sip the nectar from all milkweeds.  Early in the season before milkweeds bloom, they visit dogbane, lilac, red clover, lantana and thistles.  In the fall they will be seen sipping nectar from goldenrods, blazing stars, ironweed and tickseed sunflowers. 

One thing you may notice about this list is the host plants for the different stages of butterflies are often plants we think of as weeds or nuisances.  Some caterpillars eat garden plants, especially herbs. 

So, here’s the deal:  Failing to provide for the eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises, and adult butterflies means they will pass by your yard.  Use of pesticides to kill caterpillars will not only keep them from your yard but it will contribute to their diminished population in general.

Mourning Cloak
A good book to help identify butterflies is the “National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies”.  There are now several on-line sites to help identify butterflies and guides for planting specifically for butterflies.  (   One site tracks the migration patterns each year. 

So much of the butterfly’s life cycle we can’t control because of weather, migration and conditions in other regions of the world.  You can develop the right habitat in your yard.  Be patient, it may take a few years for them to notice you’ve put out the welcome sign.

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