August 24, 2016
Letting all that milkweed grow around my yard has paid off and we have some monarch butterfly caterpillars in there chomping away.
Though we don’t recall seeing any adult monarchs flitting through the garden, they must have visited long enough to deposit some eggs. We have seen plenty of tiger swallowtails and always grow extra dill for the larvae of the black swallowtails to eat.
These big black and green striped caterpillars are actually quite pretty!
Adult butterflies live for only a few weeks and most of that time is spent mating and laying eggs. To encourage them to carry out their whole life cycle in your yard you need to provide not only nectar plants for the adults but also host plants on which to lay their eggs and larval food for the emerging caterpillars.
Butterflies like an untidy, natural environment and many of the best plants for feeding larvae are wild. Milkweed, thistle, willow, stinging nettle, violets, mustard, white clover, blueberries, and wild cherry all provide food for the ravenous, newly-hatched caterpillars.
A good butterfly book is essential for identifying the butterflies in your yard and it will tell you the preferred larval food for each one. If the neighbors give you a hard time about letting thistle grow, just let them know that it is the preferred food of the beautiful painted lady butterfly’s larvae.
To attract butterflies you need to provide the basics of water, shelter, sunny open spots, and lots of flowers. Color and fragrance are lures and the shape of the flowers seems to be even more important than the color. Larger butterflies have long legs and need a platform to land on.
The best flowers are those made of multiple tiny blossoms such as yarrow, lilacs, phlox, buddleia, goldenrod, or Queen Anne’s lace. Also good are composite flowers like daisies, zinnias, coneflowers, and asters. Butterflies gather nectar with their tube-like proboscis, which is coiled when not in use, so flowers with a tubular shape, like bee balm, honeysuckle, or columbine also attract them.
They have an acute sense of “smell” using chemical receptors in their tongues, antennae, and feet. Heavy perfume is appealing to them so plant strong-scented, old-fashioned flowers rather than modern hybrids which may lack the fragrance of their heirloom parents.
A mud puddle is a butterfly’s ideal watering hole but a dish of water or a shallow pool with a basking spot made from a flat rock would be adequate for drinking and sunning. You could even just put a sponge in your birdbath to give them a moist place to perch. It may sound disgusting to us but they love manure tea and will drink from barnyard puddles to get the minerals they need to supplement a diet of nectar.
Enemies abound! Spiders, rodents, birds, and snakes along with viruses and other diseases can take a toll on butterfly populations but man is the butterfly’s number one enemy. Destruction of habitat has led to the decline and even extinction of certain species and the widespread use of herbicides and pesticides has been lethal to butterfly populations worldwide. To prevent inadvertently killing off the butterflies that visit your garden, avoid using chemical pesticides or even bacterial weapons like Bt. I’m willing to share a little more of my produce with other caterpillars in return for the pleasure I get from watching the butterflies frolic around my yard.
About This Blog
Get inspired by Robin Sweetser’s backyard gardening tips and tricks. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer’s Market.