If you’ve ever marveled at the butterflies in nature or on the Safari Park’s Butterfly Cam, perhaps you’ve wished they’d visit you, too. Why not host your own butterfly “open house” in your own yard or balcony? Here are some tips for setting the scene for a fluttering fête.
Like other animals, a butterfly habitat needs to provide shelter and food. While water is an important element for many animals, butterflies get almost all their water from the nectar they drink (we’ll get to that “almost” part further down).
For your butterfly garden, choose a site that gets a good amount of sun yet is also sheltered from the wind.
When they’re not feeding, butterflies hide from predators like birds and lizards. If your yard (or the landscaping in your apartment area) has trees, butterflies will use them as resting spots. At night, they’ll cling to the undersides of leaves or squeeze into crevices between rocks or bricks. In the morning, having something to sit on and bask in the sun helps them warm up to be able to fly and feed.
When it comes to food needs, butterfly larvae and adults have different needs. Adults drink nectar from flowers, but their larvae eat leaves—very specific types of leaves, in some cases.
Many people across the US have been planting milkweed to help monarch butterfly populations. The plant is important because it is the host plant for the species—the only type of plant the female seeks out for egg laying, as that is the prime food for monarch caterpillars. If you decide to plant milkweed to support monarch butterflies, be sure to spend some time online learning what type of milkweed is native to your region, and plant that.
Other butterfly larvae are specialists, too. Gulf fritillary larvae thrive by feeding on passion vine. You’ll most commonly find anise swallowtail caterpillars on fennel, dill, and parsley (which are related), while giant swallowtail larvae feed mainly on the leaves of citrus trees.
If you want to create a nursery area for butterflies, start by looking up which species are found in your area, then do an internet search and find out what the host plants are for each. Some butterflies and moth larvae feed on more than one plant; with planning you can feed multitudes!
Plan for Generations
Providing plenty of nectar plants for adult butterflies and moths is just as important as creating a nursery area. Without enough calories and nutrition, adults may not breed.
Butterflies and moths frequent flowers that are small and round with short tubular centers; they are able to extend their proboscis into the tube and take up nectar while resting on the cluster. They hone in on composite flowers that offer a landing area on a plant with sturdy stems. A flat center disc, with or without interior petals is a perfect landing platform and dining area. Members of the daisy family Asteraceae are popular with butterflies for just this reason.
Surprisingly, a muddy spot can take your butterfly garden to the next level. Male butterflies “puddle”—they flock to water-laden patches of soil to drink in the mineral-laden moisture. It’s important in their breeding process (and it’s believed they pass the crucial minerals to the females during mating). Find a way to maintain even a small area of very moist-to-muddy dirt (even a plate of watery mud), and you’ll make some male butterflies happy, indeed!
Keep It Growin’
Avoid using pesticides on your plants or anywhere in your yard. When you purchase plants for your pollinator habitat, look for “pollinator friendly” labels on plants or ask the nursery staff if they have been grown without pesticides. The toxic chemicals can get into the plant’s system, so even if you don’t use pesticides, the residue can harm pollinators.
A good way to get even more tips and hints, especially for your area, is to search social media sites for local garden groups. A visit to your local, independent nursery is another great source to tap to help you create a bountiful butterfly garden. Dig in!
Wendy Perkins is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global.