How To Attract and Support Butterflies - 27 East

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How To Attract and Support Butterflies

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A great spangled fritillary can often be found in open areas such as meadows and fields. It’s the most common fritillary. ANDREW MESSINGER

A great spangled fritillary can often be found in open areas such as meadows and fields. It’s the most common fritillary. ANDREW MESSINGER

Probably a red spotted purple resting on an item #4 stone driveway. The butterfly is able to extract needed minerals that are dissolved by dew and rain on the driveway stone. ANDREW MESSINGER

Probably a red spotted purple resting on an item #4 stone driveway. The butterfly is able to extract needed minerals that are dissolved by dew and rain on the driveway stone. ANDREW MESSINGER

While there are several swallowtails this one is a female black swallowtail. They
are attracted to butterfly bush, Joe Pye weed, milkweed, Phlox and ironweed. ANDREW MESSINGER

While there are several swallowtails this one is a female black swallowtail. They are attracted to butterfly bush, Joe Pye weed, milkweed, Phlox and ironweed. ANDREW MESSINGER

A white admiral butterfly feeding on the nectar from a common goldenrod. ANDREW MESSINGER

A white admiral butterfly feeding on the nectar from a common goldenrod. ANDREW MESSINGER

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Hampton Gardener®

  • Publication: Residence
  • Published on: Jun 12, 2024
  • Columnist: Andrew Messinger

I’ve had a number of experiences with butterflies in my life, and each one has been dramatically different.

As a child in summer camp I was the quintessential nature boy and had the great luck of being a protégé to an incredible naturalist who taught me where and how to search for butterflies, how to catch them and then how to release them without harming them — never touch their wing tops. Many years later I took entomology in college and put my earlier experience to work assembling the requisite Lepidoptera (butterfly family) collection. It saddened me to have to kill the butterflies, pin them and put them into display cases, but it was all in the name of science.

Then a few decades ago butterflies became the rage. Books on butterfly gardening were falling off the presses. Botanical gardens and even some zoos were building butterfly gardens and enclosed butterfly habitats, and many an unwitting gardener was suckered into buying curious wooden butterfly houses and overwintering homes at shops and through mail-order catalogs. I was determined not to get sucked into that marketing and fad frenzy, so you never saw mention of butterfly gardening in this column. In fact, subsequent university research and scientific opinion has shown that these butterfly homes served no purpose other than to line the pockets of the marketers.

But things have changed. Butterflies, even the ubiquitous monarch, have been a dwindling feature in our landscape for a number of years but not recently. Reductions in natural habitats, indiscriminate use of pesticides and their subjectability to the weather reduced the flutterers’ populations to the point where a handful in a summer was a milestone. Not so last summer though, and certainly not this summer. Two mild winters and near perfect breeding conditions in the Northeast and maybe even a reduction in home pesticide use has resulted in an explosion in not just numbers but in varieties of butterflies that we’ve seen this summer. And of course, or relentless planting for the pollinators.

It’s been particularly apparent to me because I have a small holding nursery of perennials outside my office window, and I can’t help but notice these beautiful silent visitors as they glide about searching for food, mates and overnight accommodations. It’s all made it abundantly clear that yes, indeed you can garden with the intent of attracting butterflies. But as with any pursuit, this one has its ups and downs. Keep in mind that, no matter what you plant, if the East End is not part of a butterfly species’s natural habitat and range, that species will not visit your garden.

Not only is it necessary to have “food” plants in your garden that will attract butterflies to feed on the nectar, but it’s also necessary to offer places where the females will lay their eggs and where both sexes have access to water. Some females are pickier about which host plants to lay their eggs on than others. For example, caterpillars of the monarch butterfly develop only on milkweed while the black swallowtail feeds only on parsley, dill and closely related plants. And it’s not only the butterflies that can be noteworthy. The larvae, which we know as caterpillars, can be quite spectacular, having hairs or forked spines, such as the tomato hornworm, which may or may not sting. Certain swallowtail caterpillars imitate snakes or bird droppings. Other caterpillars like the sulphurs are camouflaged or blend into their surroundings incredibly well.

If caterpillars are eating excessive foliage (the aforementioned downside) they can simply be picked up (with gloves please) and gently moved to another less noticeable portion of the plant.

Remember that insects — and butterflies are insects — are cold blooded and cannot internally regulate their body temperatures. They will readily bask in the sun when it’s warm out, but few are seen on cloudy days or in deep shade. It’s a good idea to leave open areas in a yard for butterflies to sun themselves as well as partly shaded areas where they will tend to hide on cloudy days or cool off on oppressively warm days.

Butterflies also like puddles and can often be seen at a pond or stream’s edge and even at the edge of a fountain that isn’t splashing. Males of several species will congregate at small rain pools after a thunder shower, forming what is referred to as puddle clubs or mud clubs where it is thought they get mineral supplements from the water as well as moisture. Permanent puddles or water features will also work, but what works best is a feature that is sunken and then filled with small stones or gravel and water.

The most common puddle- and mud-loving local butterfly is the eastern tiger swallowtail. The males can often be found on warm days congregating around mud, damp gravel (think trails or farm roads in the woods) or puddles. Groups of a dozen or more males can be seen gathering as they extract sodium ions and amino acids from these features.

Adult butterflies have mouth parts shaped into a long, coiled tube. Forcing blood into the tube straightens it out allowing the insect to feed on liquids, its sole diet. They get all of their food from this tube which limits them to nectar and standing water. It’s a common misconception that they also feed on pollen, and it’s only the larval stage, the caterpillars, that have the chewing mouthparts that enable them to eat foliage.

Adults have large, rounded compound eyes, which allow them to see in all directions without turning their heads. Like most insects, they are very nearsighted and are more attracted to large stands of a particular flower than those planted singly. They do not see “red” as well as we do, but they can see polarized light (which tells them the direction the sun is pointing) as well as ultraviolet light, which is present on many flowers and guides them to nectar sources. They also have very well developed senses of smell, which is picked up not by a nose but via their very complex antennae.

If you intend to plant specifically for the butterflies it should be considered that many of the plants that they find most attractive are actually weeds in other settings. Good examples are thistles and dandelions, all highly attractive to several of the more common butterflies but not exactly what you want to encourage in the landscape. On my property the tiger swallowtails are attracted to lilac “Miss Kim,” and for days on end the flutterers are dropping from the sky to feed on this plant’s prolific nectar.

Also consider that a well-tended and manicured garden and lawn will actually discourage butterflies from establishing a habitat. The highest concentration of butterflies that I’ve seen is in free-form gardens (pollinator gardens) where the gardener or designer has simply let loose.

Insecticides, both chemical and natural, can be a major problem as well. Caterpillars are highly susceptible to the natural insecticide Bt, which is used to control cabbage loopers (also a butterfly larvae), gypsy moth caterpillars and a host of other garden and plant eaters. There is also great controversy about some farm plants (most notably corn) that are available with a Bt-enhanced gene that can be deadly to passing (feeding) butterflies. As for garden insecticides, adult butterflies can be killed as they rest on a surface that has been insecticide treated.

There are about a dozen different butterflies in our area that you can attract to your garden. They have wonderful names like swallowtails, monarchs, red admiral, painted lady, great spangled fritillary, mourning cloak and others. You can tempt each one with a particular plant and its nectar, but it takes some research as well as patience. Here’s a partial list of annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs that will help your and their endeavor: Aster, bee balm, butterfly bush, butterfly plant, Coreopsis (tickseed), Cosmos, Gaillardia, goldenrod, Hibiscus (perennial), Joe Pye weed, lilac, Marigold, ornamental thistles, parsley, Phlox, purple coneflower, sunflowers, sweet peas, Verbena and Zinnias. Keep in mind that the species of these plant groups are much more likely to provide nectar for butterflies than the hybrids, which may not be nectar producers.

Also remember that you need to provide food for the caterpillars so to add to the above list consider: broccoli, cabbage, carrot (or Queen Anne’s lace), willow, hackberry, cottonwood, aspen, elm, locust and others.

There are a number of excellent guides and keys to butterflies if you’d like to know more about what’s passing through or feeding in your garden or at your puddle, and there is also a long list of books on butterfly gardening. Several years ago I picked up a copy of “Peterson’s Flash Guide to Butterflies,” which is an easy-to-use and conveniently folded, laminated pictorial key with text. You can find used copies (perfectly good) at abebooks.com. Just remember that you can plant till you’re 100 and plant all the “right” plants, but if you’re trying to attract butterflies that don’t naturally pass our way, it just isn’t going to happen. Keep growing.

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