Brightly colored butterflies can be a welcome addition to your Backyard Wildlife Habitat landscape. To attract the greatest number of butterflies and have them as residents in your yard you will need to have plants that serve the needs of all life stages of the butterfly. They need a place to lay eggs, food plants for the larva (caterpillar), a place to form a chrysalis, and nectar sources for the adult.
Most adult butterflies live 10-20 days. Some, however, are believed to live no longer than three or four days, while others, such as overwintering monarchs, may live six months.
Over 700 species of butterflies are found in North America. Very few are agricultural pests. Adult butterflies range in size from the half-inch pigmy blue found in southern California to the giant female Queen Alexandra's birdwing of New Guinea, which measures about 10 inches from wing tip to wing tip. Butterfly tarsi or "feet" possess a sense similar to taste. Contact with sweet liquids such as nectar causes the proboscis to uncoil. Millions of shinglelike, overlapping scales give butterfly wings their color and patterns. Metallic, irridescent hues come from faceted scales that refract light; solid colors are from pigmented scales. During the time from hatching to pupating (forming the pupa or chrysalis), the caterpillar may increase its body size more than 30,000 times. The chrysalises or pupae of many common gossamer wings --a group of butterflies which includes the blues, hairstreaks and elfins -- are capable of producing weak sounds. By flexing and rubbing together body segment membranes, sounds are generated that may frighten off small predators and parasites.
Plants that attract butterflies
Adults searching for nectar are attracted to:
-- red, yellow, orange, pink, or purple blossoms
-- flat-topped or clustered flowers
-- short flower tubes
Short flower tubes allow the butterflies to reach the nectar with their proboscis. Nectar-producing plants should be grown in open, sunny areas, as adults of most species rarely feed on plants in the shade.
Many caterpillars are picky eaters. They rely on only one or two species of plants. The caterpillar of the giant swallowtail butterfly in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states feeds on just two native plant foods --northern prickly ash and hop tree. Others, such as the red-spotted purple, will feed on a variety of deciduous trees.
Necessities for a butterfly garden
Provide flowers to feed adults.
Dense "clusters" of small flowers such as zinnias, marigolds, tithonia, buddleia, milkweeds, verbenas, and many mint family plants generally work well.
Plant good nectar sources in the sun!
Your key butterfly nectar source plants should receive full sun from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. Butterfly adults generally feed only in the sun. If sun is limited in your landscape, try adding butterfly nectar sources to the vegetable garden.
No to insecticides!
Insecticides such as malathion, Sevin, and diazinon are marketed to kill insects. Don't use these materials in or near the butterfly garden or better, anywhere on your property. Even "benign" insecticides, such as Bacillus thuringiensis, are lethal to butterflies (while caterpillars).
Feed butterfly caterpillars.
If you don't "grow" caterpillars, there will be no adults. Bringing caterpillar foods into your garden can greatly increase your chances of attracting unusual and uncommon butterflies, while giving you yet another reason to plant an increasing variety of native plants. In many cases, caterpillars of a species feed on only a very limited variety of plants. Most butterfly caterpillars never cause the leaf damage we associate with some moth caterpillars such as bagworms, tent caterpillars, or gypsy moths.