Attracting Butterflies To Your Yard

Attracting butterflies to your yard can be a simple task. Utilizing adult nectar sources and larval (caterpillar) host plants are key.
Adult butterflies primarily search for food in the form of sugary nectar, but also obtain nutrients like amino acids form decaying plant or animal material. Nectar is produced by specialized floral parts called nectaries that are a part of a plant’s flower. This sweet, high-energy liquid is easily lapped up by the butterfly’s proboscis (tongue).
Because flowers are the primary nectar source for butterflies, it makes sense that flower color and shape play an important role in attracting butterflies to a specific plant. Butterflies use the visible spectrum for color vision just as humans do; however, they are highly sensitive to ultraviolet (UV), violet, blue, green, and red wavelengths.
Because of this, many native butterflies prefer plants that have pink, red, purple, yellow, or orange flowers.
Look for plants that produce clusters of tubular flowers or flowers with large flat petals. Using plants that bloom at different times will provide a stable nectar source from spring to frost. Selecting plants from the nursery that have a butterfly symbol on the tag is a good indicator that the plants will attract butterflies. Some of these nectar plants include Blazing star (Liatris spp.), Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Tickseed (Coreopsis spp.), and Zinnia (Zinnia elegans).
Nectar plants will attract adult butterflies, but you will need plants for caterpillars to eat too. These plants are known as host plants. Tiny caterpillars are unable to travel large distances in search of their own food.
This is why the female butterfly lays her eggs on a specific type of host plant to make it easier for the caterpillar to feed immediately after hatching. If fewer host plants are available, it is likely that there will be fewer butterflies.
Butterflies such as the Monarch (Danaus plexippus) are very particular, feeding exclusively on milkweed. Others will use plants from several different families. A few host plants are: Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), and Passion Vine (Passiflora incarnata). Developing caterpillars have avid appetites so you will need to be tolerant of the damage to your plants. While plants may appear to be decimated, most seem to tolerate the grazing just fine. If you are trying to grow dill or fennel, consider having plants for you and plants for the caterpillars.
Butterflies gain water when consuming nectar from flowers and absorbing nutrients from decaying matter. However, having a clean water source within the butterfly garden ensures water availability. Like most flying insects, butterflies do not swim. If a containerized water source, such as a shallow birdbath, is provided, be sure to place rocks or sticks in the water to serve as landing platforms. To create a puddling place in the butterfly garden, place a shallow pan or dish flush into the soil, preferably in an open area. Fill the pan with moist, coarse sand. Locate puddling places under a soaker hose or near a drip emitter, as this works well to keep the sand constantly moist.
The following are good recommendations for resources for identifications when learning the different butterfly species:
• Peterson First Guides: Butterflies and Moths by Paul A. Opler
• Peterson First Guides: Caterpillars by Amy Bartlett Wright
• Peterson Field Guides Eastern Butterflies by Paul A. Opler & Vichai Malikul
• The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies by Robert Michael Pyle
• Butterflies and Moths of North America (online resource)
• Carolina Butterfly Society (online resource)
For more information on attracting butterflies in the garden, please visit the Home and Garden Information Center website at hgic.clemson.edu. Tune in on Tuesday nights to watch “Making it Grow” at 7pm on SCETV or mig.org Email Outen at [email protected]
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