www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/

Urban Wildlife – Butterflies

For decades portions of wilderness areas, usually removed from urban settings, have been used to encourage wildlife. Traditionally, wildlife management centered on improved habitat and hunting practices for game species. More recently, wildlife conservation has risen to promote habitat and species diversity. In this process, the term wildlife has also taken on a non-traditional approach.

Outdoor activities, such as bird watching, have always been popular. However, there is an increased awareness in “wildlife watching” as a response to outdoor activities centered on ecological diversity and conservation. Not only do outdoor enthusiasts want to visit wild places to engage with various forms of wildlife, they also have a tendency to want to bring a piece of the wild back home with them. This nostalgic connection can be seen by the heightened increase in pollinator gardening and butterfly conservation in recent years.

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is South Carolina’s state butterfly. Male form pictured.

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is South Carolina’s state butterfly. Male form pictured.
Michael T. Waldrop, ©2018

Butterfly gardening along with photography began to increase in popularity in the mid-80s, but has been around long before this time. Hallberg Gardens located in Western Sonoma County, California is one of the oldest designated butterfly gardens in the United States. In the 1920s, Ms. Della Hallberg planted a native vine, Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia californica), as larval food for the developing caterpillar stage of the Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor). This act not only highlighted butterflies as a thing of beauty and something worth conserving, but also as wildlife with basic needs for food, water, and shelter to perpetuate the species. For those without a large expanse of acreage and with a little gardening know how, the backyard sanctuary can become a similar home for butterflies.

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in Eastern North America migrate to an overwintering home in the Sierra Madres Mountains of Mexico.

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in Eastern North America migrate to an overwintering home in the Sierra Madres Mountains of Mexico.
Michael T. Waldrop, ©2018

 

HGIC 1701, Butterflies in the Garden contains information pertaining to the butterfly life cycle, nectar and host plant requirements, water and mineral needs, habitat design, and a few other helpful considerations.

HGIC 1735, Butterflies of South Carolina provides an in depth list of butterflies found across the state with habitat, host plant, and nectar source preferences. The sources listed are those preferred by each butterfly species; however, most butterflies will use a variety of plants when available and necessary.

Butterfly Behavior

The behavior of butterflies, as for most insects, can help predict where to find them in the landscape. Understanding butterfly behavior can potentially be used as a tool to attract them to a particular area.

The ability of male butterflies to locate females is extremely important for mating. Female butterflies tend to move along paths, streams, and ridges in areas with a tendency for openness. Male butterflies will seek out areas to perch and patrol at these locations.

Male Swallowtails, Red Admirals, Commas, and Mourning Cloaks tend to perch, while male Whites, Sulfurs, and Monarchs patrol. Grouping similar species of flowers with large petals for perching along open pathways creates an enticing garden for both male and female butterflies. Butterflies generally choose flowers that are most abundant. When an abundance of a flower species is present, males have a place to comfortably flit about (patrol from flower to flower) while awaiting females.

Male and females of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) can easily spot one another for potential mating among open areas of flowers and vegetation.

Male and females of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) can easily spot one another for potential mating among open areas of flowers and vegetation.
Michael T. Waldrop, ©2018

Plant Recognition

Wildflowers, weeds, and grasses in flower are attractive to butterflies prior to mating, as well as for egg laying. The female butterfly selects specific host plants to lay her eggs on. Presence or absence of specific host plants in the garden may persuade the female to choose a particular oviposition (egg- laying) location. Female butterflies use visual cues, such as leaf shape and color to help determine plant type at a distance of several feet away. The presence of specific host plants is important, as well as the abundance of these plants for butterfly recognition.

In the case of host plants required to feed developing caterpillars, flowers are less important while leaves or stems become more useful. Female butterflies may choose specifically to lay eggs on healthy plants that are away from flowers visited for nectar, which provides shelter for developing eggs.

Butterflies use taste receptors located in their antennae and feet for closer determination of plant type. Butterflies use these receptors to taste a plant as they touchdown and begin the process of plant recognition. A technique called drumming allows butterflies to capture released chemicals for plant identification by tapping the plant leaf with the front foot. The repeated tapping scratches the leaf surface in order to release identifying chemicals. In this manner, butterflies collect information on texture and health of a plant.

Flower abundance is important to butterflies in terms of energy conservation. Expending less energy, by travelling shorter distances from flower to flower, allows butterflies to devote more energy to reproduction.

Flower abundance is important to butterflies in terms of energy conservation. Expending less energy, by travelling shorter distances from flower to flower, allows butterflies to devote more energy to reproduction.
Michael T. Waldrop, ©2018

Season Long Bloom in the Garden

Abundance of plant type is a repetitive theme in attracting butterflies to a particular location. Flowers provide nectar and pollen while vegetation provides cover and a food source for developing caterpillars. Having an abundance of plants in the garden supports these uses. This does not imply that a butterfly garden need only be one type of plant. Rather, there is the necessity for groupings of like plant species or colors in the case of flower importance. Many flower species are useful when attention is given to organization and design of the garden, but most importantly butterfly needs.

Select plants with varied flowering times and heights. Annuals, herbaceous perennials, shrubs, and even some trees are options. When using perennials, consider planting a variety of early, midseason, and late blooming plants in order to prolong the flowering season. Combinations of new blooms to transition from one season to the next draws butterflies into the garden and keeps them active within the garden from early spring until frost. Low growing plants will promote smaller species of butterflies, and taller vegetation and blooms will attract larger butterfly species. No matter the combination, season long bloom is key. Providing for butterflies throughout the seasons will help improve survival and keep them returning to the garden year after year.

Starter Butterfly Garden Plant List

Common Name Botanical Name Bloom Time and Color Type, Height, Light
Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia spp. Summer-Fall
Yellow
Most perennial (some annual), 2-3 feet, Full sun
Joe-Pye Weed Eutrochium spp. Summer- Early Fall
Mauve Pink
Perennial, 4-6 feet, Full sun
Blazing Star Liatris spp. Summer-Fall
White, Rose, Lavender
Perennial, 2-4 feet, Full sun
Tickseed Coreopsis spp. Spring- Fall
Yellow
Annual (some perennial), 2-4 feet, Full sun
Pentas Pentas spp. Summer
Pink, Red, Lavender
Annual, 1-3 feet, Full sun
Asters Aster spp. Summer-Fall
Pink, Blue, Violet, White
Perennial, 3-6 feet, Full sun
Butterfly Weed Asclepias 
tuberosa
Summer
Orange, Red
Perennial, 2-3 feet, Full sun
Coneflower Echinacea spp. Summer
Purple, Pink, Yellow, White
Perennial, 2-4 feet, Full sun to part shade
Lantana Lantana spp. Summer-Fall
White, Yellow, Orange, Red, Purple, Pink
Perennial shrub, 1-3 feet, Full sun
Butterfly Bush Buddleja spp. Summer-Fall
Purple, Pink , Lavender, White
Perennial shrub, 6-10 feet, Full sun
For additional plant options, see HGIC 1727, Pollinator Gardening.
Notes: Starter butterfly gardens are easily enhanced by the addition of a couple of new plant species each year.
Plants that tend to spread excessively when planted in ground should be maintained in containers.
Native plant selection aids in attracting native butterflies.

Providing Shelter and Protection

Butterflies need to maintain the appropriate body temperature for flight. The ideal shelter will provide butterflies with protection from fluctuating temperatures, moisture, and air currents while aiding in conservation of body temperature. These areas also allow butterflies to avoid the unnecessary expenditure of energy to fight wind currents when feeding or mating.

Nectar flow is influenced by temperature, so protected areas may help some plant species extend nectar availability. The warm temperatures in sheltered areas can also promote the development of eggs and caterpillars. In fact, temperature consistency can increase egg and caterpillar development by 50% in some cases.

Shelter also aids in protecting butterflies from predators, such as birds, that ay eat them. Easy shelter options include evergreen trees and shrubs (mixed screens), fences, rock walls, or butterfly boxes.

Butterfly boxes were originally designed as hibernation boxes, but there are few records of butterflies using the boxes for this purpose. Butterfly boxes, as a potential shelter option, can be a nice addition to the garden.

Butterfly box construction: Using untreated lumber, create a box (complete with top and bottom) approximately 1 to 2 feet long x 6 inches wide x 6 inches deep. Cut evenly spaced 2 to 3.5 inches long rounded slits (prior to box construction) into the front panel. Slits should be approximately ½ to ¾ inch wide. If kept to a minimum, slits can be added to the side panels. Mount the box vertically on a tree or post at least 3 to 4 feet above ground. The top of the box can be slanted for a roof design or hinged for viewing into the box. Keep disturbance to a minimum. Leave the wooden box interior rough for butterfly legs to attach. Perching shelves can be placed within the butterfly box or simply hang strips of thin bark lengthwise. Screen or hardware cloth can be used on portions of the butterfly box instead of lumber, as long as water remain outside the structure. Be aware that other insects besides butterflies may find the box attractive.

Butterfly houses are easily constructed to almost any size or design.

Butterfly houses are easily constructed to almost any size or design.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Overwintering

Once the growing season ends, the majority of butterflies overwinter as eggs or pupa in plant debris left behind. The natural tendency is to tidy up the garden by removal of debris at this time. This is a good practice, especially if plant disease or insect pests are suspected. However, the butterfly gardener may choose to leave portions of debris that house future generations of butterflies. Old stalks and stems can be discarded after new butterflies have emerged the following spring.

Even though it has conspicuous false eyespots, the Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia), blends in and becomes partially camouflaged with the grain of wood as it folds its wings.

Even though it has conspicuous false eyespots, the Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia), blends in and becomes partially camouflaged with the grain of wood as it folds its wings.
Michael T. Waldrop, ©2018

Some butterflies, such as the Mourning Cloak (Nympalis antiopa), overwinter as adults. In the case of overwintering adults, tree hollows, bark crevices and fissures, log piles, and nooks of buildings are important places for cover. These areas offer camouflage and protection from low temperatures for cold tolerant butterflies. These sheltered areas also provide a place for some butterflies to accumulate cryoprotectants (molecules of complex sugars) that act as antifreeze within their bodies for the winter months.

Online Resources:

  • North American Butterfly Association
  • Butterflies and Moths of North America

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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