Compliments of Wild Birds Forever

A writer once described butterflies as “dream flowers” – childhood dreams, which have broken, loose and escaped into the sunshine. Next time you spot a beautiful butterfly dreamily floating through your garden, consider this: most adult butterflies live only 10-20 days, some no more than a few days, and overwintering monarchs are lucky to live six months. Although butterflies seem very fragile, they are hardy enough to be found almost everywhere on our planet. Worldwide there are over 20,000 kinds of butterflies. 700 of these butterfly species make their home in North America. With a little understanding of their habits and food preferences, you should be able to attract a few of them to your own backyard.


Both moths and butterflies belong to the insect classification “lepidoptera” which means “scaly-winged.” The most distinct differences between the two are generally, butterflies fly during the day, moths at night (although there are a few exceptions to this rule.) Another identifying characteristic between the two is the body and wing designs of moths make their flight look stiff and jerky, while butterflies fly more gracefully. Lastly, look carefully at their antennas. Moths have either slender, tapering filaments or look like radio antennas with lots of cross hairs. Butterflies by contrast have simple filaments that have a noticeable swelling, called the “club” at the end.


All butterflies go through four distinct stages in their lives. Adult female butterflies will select plants to lay their eggs on that will provide food to the caterpillars. Once the eggs are laid, they will usually hatch within one week. The voracious caterpillar that emerges will spend most of its time eating and growing. When the caterpillar has grown to full size (about 2-3 weeks) it attaches itself to a support and pupates (metamorphizes into a chrysalis). If development proceeds, an adult butterfly will emerge in 1-2 weeks. (Some butterflies will overwinter as pupas.) The adult butterfly, emerging from the chrysalis will bask in the sunshine to harden and set its wings, and begin its very short, but beautiful life.


Now that you know how precious a butterfly is, invite some over for the shear fun of watching them dance in your own garden! Here’s some tips to help out:

  • When you want butterflies in your backyard, you should aspire to GROW THEM! That means attracting adult butterflies to lay eggs in your garden and grow caterpillars. You need to first consider growing plants that offer food to hungry caterpillars. As gardeners, our instincts are to remove caterpillars because they eat our plants. Because most butterfly caterpillars will eat only a special group of plants, you don’t have to worry about them spreading to other areas of your garden. Some good choices for “growing caterpillars” are asters, black cherry, hollyhocks, lupines, milkweed, parsley, snapdragon, sunflower and violets.
  • You should also consider growing a diversity of plants and flowers that attract adult butterflies. Adult butterflies like lots of nectar sources and sunshine. Adult butterflies searching for nectar are attracted to red, yellow, orange, pink or purple blossoms. They prefer large, flat-topped or clustered flowers with short tubes. Short flower tubes allow butterflies to reach the nectar. Some good plant choices to consider are bee balm, cone flowers, thyme, goldenrod, butterfly bush, lavender, lilies, marigold, wild geranium, verbenas, zinnia, asters, violets, milkweed and many mint family plants. Any nectar producing plants should be grown in open, sunny areas, as adult butterflies rarely feed on plants in the shade.
  • If you want to lure butterflies to your yard, consider a specialized butterfly feeder. Most butterfly feeders are designed to hold butterfly nectar and over ripe fruit such as bananas and pears that butterflies adore! Place these feeders in sunny locations near flowers they will be attracted to.
  • Butterflies like to hang out around mud puddles, wet sand and gravel areas. Here they will congregate and absorb the water and salts. Provide mud puddles or wet areas in your garden. Pick an area close to your butterfly garden and sprinkle small rocks or gravel in a concentrated area. Water the rocks frequently to keep the soil underneath damp and watch the party grow!
  • Consider a butterfly hibernation box in your backyard. A butterfly hibernation box is a tall, slender wood box with vertical slots on the front to allow butterflies access inside. This will provide a roosting shelter for adult butterflies or a winter home for butterflies that overwinter in the area. Your butterfly hibernation box should be placed low to the ground and close to your designated butterfly plants. Add a few vertical strips of bark or twigs to your box to give adult butterflies something to cling to inside your box.
  • Hilltops are the butterfly equivalent of singles bars. Male butterflies will patrol hilltops looking for females. If you can create varying heights in your yard with rocks, do so! Place your large or decorative rocks in sunny areas. Butterflies are cold blooded and like to warm themselves in the sun.
  • And lastly, try to suspend your use of chemicals in your butterfly garden. Many commercial insecticides are lethal to butterflies and caterpillars, not to mention the damage they cause to our environment.

Now you have the party plan! Get creative and try a few of these easy tricks to lure more butterflies into your garden this summer. You will be well rewarded when you start to see these magnificent jewels fluttering about in your garden!

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