Convincing butterflies to visit your yard and stay a while can be a challenge. You might 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 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. Most larval host plants are native to their region. Some caterpillars are very picky and will only eat one type of plant, and others are less discriminating. Be sure to provide several larval host plants of each kind to make sure you have enough food for several caterpillars, unless they are large plants. 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 called systemic insecticides 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 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 micro-climates and increase that provide shelter. 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.
Hint: Florida folks – Bidens alba, known as Spanish needle and beggar tick, blooms all year in the warmer areas and is a favorite of many pollinators.
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, get minerals and to cool off. They don’t get all of the nutrients they need from nectar, so they are able to extract it from the water they drink!
You can make a simple puddler like the one above with a plant tray or pie pan, rocks, sand and/or compost, and some water. Place it near your flowers, put a little water in each day, especially when it’s dry, and you’ll soon have butterflies and bees stopping by to have more of their basic needs met.
We are surrounded by chemicals. Many homes and agricultural areas spray for insects; many stores treat plants with systemic pesticides, such as neonicotinids, 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), and provide the beautiful plants needed for all stages of the butterfly’s life.
Certify Your Butterfly Garden
If you meet all of the criteria above, you can certify your butterfly garden with the North American Butterfly Association. You’ll enter the types of plants you have in your yard and pay a small fee. Getting the sign is optional but helps your neighbors learn about butterflies, and recognize your commitment to environmental health. We recommend proudly displaying signs like this, especially if your butterfly garden is a little messy.
Our Favorite Butterfly Plants
Native Florida milkweed – larval host plant for monarch and queen butterflies
Native Florida cassia – larval host plants for a few sulphur butterflies
Firebush – favorite nectar plant for the zebra longwing and hummingbirds
Corkystem passionvine – larval host plant for the zebra longwing, gulf fritillary, and julia butterflies
Native Florida porterweed (a groundcover) – favorite nectar plant for many butterflies
Dune sunflower – (a groundcover) – favorite nectar plant for many butterflies