Convincing butterflies to visit your yard and stay a while can be a challenge. I see them flitting through the trees, soaring up and down, occasionally stopping for a bit of nectar before cruising on to…? Where are they going? They have to hang out somewhere, right?
To understand how to make a haven for butterflies in your yard, you first have to understand what it is they are looking for. Butterflies symbolize transformation. They have four phases in their life cycle and different needs in each phase. Providing for its needs during each of these phases will change your yard from a drive by snack stand to an all-inclusive resort. Why leave, when everything they need is right here.
Where Do the Babies Come From?
Butterflies lay tiny eggs on or near their larval host plant. Once the egg hatches, a tiny and very hungry caterpillar will emerge, ready to feast on its preferred host plant. Some caterpillars are very picky and will only eat one type of plant, and others are less discriminating. Most larval host plants are native plants. Be sure to provide several larval host plants of each kind to make sure you have enough food for several caterpillars, and to make sure that the momma butterfly will see the maternity ward that you provided, unless they get huge. For example, a Dutchman’s pipevine or passionvine might grow huge. One mature plant is probably sufficient. Unfortunately, many big box stores spray their plants with chemicals to prevent insects from eating them prior to sale. This kills the caterpillars too. Always ask if the plant has been treated and look for a tag that labels what it has been sprayed with. When in doubt, don’t buy it.
The babies will be happy on their larval host plant until they are ready to form a chrysalis. They will need a sheltered space to build their new little home. The adults will need to seek shelter at night and during rainy weather, and hiding places from predators. The really tidy, well manicured lawns aren’t really conducive to attracting butterflies. They like a bit of overgrowth, places to get out of the elements.
The babies will have their leafy diet, but the adults have a sweeter palate. They prefer nectar from flowers. Plant several different colors and shapes of flowers to appeal to different types of butterflies. They have varying proboscis (tube-like tongue) lengths and feeding habits. Some butterflies like long skinny tubular flowers while others prefer wide open petals. When designing your yard, plant several of the same type of flowers together to make a larger buffet for butterflies to enjoy, and the flowers will be more noticeable. Plant vegetation in varying heights as well. This will create varying microclimates and increase the shelter opportunities. Native plants will attract more butterflies than nonnatives. Try to find plants that will bloom at different times so that something is always blooming in your yard.
Butterflies need to drink just like us, but they can’t just drink from anywhere or they risk drowning. They prefer the edges of a pond or a shallow tray with water and rocks in it. They use the water to drink, and to cool off. And, which surprised me, as a source of minerals. They don’t get all of the nutrients they need from nectar, so they are able to extract it from the water they drink!
We are surrounded by chemicals. Many homes and agricultural areas spray for insects; many stores treat plants with neonicotinid chemicals which stay on the plant for the duration of its life. Caterpillars that eat the plant will die, but the plant will remain healthy and bug-free its entire life. There has been a dramatic decline in butterfly and bee populations for the last several years, and environmental poisons carry a large part of the blame. Help the butterfly populations by buying plants that are not treated with neonicotinid chemicals, avoid widespread application of pesticides in your yard (even organic pesticides kill insects, especially Bt), and provide the beautiful plants needed for all stages of the butterfly’s life.