A butterfly in the garden brings a certain happiness with it, and it’s uplifting when your garden becomes home to a multitude of them.
Butterflies must be cultivated, just like any flower, and hopefully some of the following information and links will help you on your way.
The basic principles of a successful butterfly garden are simple:
- Reduction and elimination of insecticides. Butterflies are insects, too! The adults and caterpillars need plants for both food and shelter. When your landscape is treated lightly, you’ll find new guests arrive to help kept pests in balance. You can help this along by adding bird houses, frog houses, or a dragonfly nursery.
- Plant Nectar Plants for the adult butterflies.
- Plant Host Plants for the caterpillars. Most caterpillars can only eat a certain type of plant(s). Your area must have these for the whole life-cycle to occur.
- Have patience.
If you’ve seen the Butterfly Gardening Display, following is the information you may have seen posted there:
Lepidoptera – Butterflies, Skippers, and Moths
What is the difference between a butterfly, moth and skipper? Butterflies are typically day fliers, brightly colored and usually possess a knob on the tip of their antennae. Skippers are also day fliers, frequently brightly colored, but differ from the true butterflies in that they possess proportionately larger bodies, smaller wings, and hooked antennae. Moths are typically nocturnal (active at night,) mostly dull colored, have larger bodies, and a feather-like antennae. Moths outnumber butterflies 8 to 1.
Butterflies can see colors that we can’t see. Their range of color vision extends into the ultraviolet. The plants that they visit display special ultraviolet patterns which guide the insects deep into the flower.
The lifespan of most adult butterflies is about 7-10 days, but some can live much longer.
Like Moths To A Flame?
You’ve heard that many moths are attracted to light. Did you know that many moths love a good microbrew too?
Try this recipe: Mix a paste of beer, brown sugar, and ripe banana and let it sit covered on the counter for an hour or two, or three. Wait until late afternoon or early evening and paint the mixture on some trees about 4-5 from the ground. Check back later in the evening with your flashlight to see the moths you’re sure to attract.
Please note that other critters will find this mash irresistible too. You might want to wash it off the trees in the morning. We don’t recommend using this in an area where there is an active bear population. They might be attracted too.
Nectar plants are used by most butterflies, but some types will attract more than one species of butterfly. Butterflies are attracted to flowers that are orange, yellow, pink, purple and red. White flowers that are fragrant at night, may attract moths. Plants that are flat-topped or have short flower tubes are best. Those with deep throated, drooping or enclosed flowers are unsuitable for nectar-gathering. It is helpful to have a variety of these available so that many species of butterflies will be drawn to your garden. Avoid using listed Invasive plants that degrade habitat for other species. Good Florida nectar plants include:
(*indicates Florida native plants)
- Asters (Symphotrichum carolinianum* and Stokesia laevis)
- Beach Sunflower (Helianthus debilis)*
- Beggarticks (Bidens alba) *
- Blanket Flower (Gallardia sp.)*
- Blazing star (Liatris sp.)*
- Coneflower (Echinacea spp.) *
- Firebush (Hamelia patens)*
- Firecracker plant (Russelia equisetiformis)
- Firespike (Odontonema strictum)
- Golden dewdrop (Duranta erecta)
Goldenrod (Solidago spp) *
- Ironweed (Vernonia sp.) *
- Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
- Penta (Pentas lanceolata)
- Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata)
- Porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis)*
- Rosinweed (Silphium simpsonii)*
- Salvia (Salvia sp. including Salvia coccinea* and S. leucantha)
- Scorpiontail (Heliotropium angiospermum)*
- Tickseed (Coreopsis sp)*
Host plants are plants on which butterflies will lay their eggs. Butterflies are specialists, and their larvae (caterpillars) can only consume certain types of plants. Some exotic plants can be harmful to caterpillars, so native plants are usually the better choice. Host plants will be eaten by caterpillars, sometimes to the stem, so know that these plants will often look less than perfect. This is part of the butterfly gardening process. Good Florida host plants by species include:
(*indicates Florida native plants)
- Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes):Parsley, Dill, Fennel
- Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae): Cassia (Cassia sp.), Partridge pea (C. fasciculata) *
- Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia): Plantain (Plantago) *
- Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus): Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)*, Willow (Salix sp.), Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina)*
- Florida Viceroy (Limenitis archippus floridensis): Willow (Salix)
- Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes): Citrus, Wild Lime (Zanthoxylum fagara)*, Hercules Club (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis)*, Rue (Ruta graevolens)
- Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae): Passionvine (Passiflora sp.)
- Julia Longwing (Dryas iulia): Passionvine (Passiflora sp.)
- Monarch (Danaus plexippus): Milkweed (Asclepias sp.)
- Orange-Barred Sulphur (Phoebis philea): Cassia (Cassia sp.)
- Palamedes Swallowtail (Papilio palamedes): Red Bay (Persea borbonia) *
- Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor): Pipevine (Aristolochia sp.)
- Polydamas Swallowtail (Battus polydamas): Pipevine (Aristolochia sp.)
- Queen (Danaus gilippus): Milkweed (Asclepias sp.)
- Red Spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis): Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) *
- Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus): Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)*
- White Peacock (Anartia jatrophae): Water Hyssop (Bacopa monnieri) *
- Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charithonia): Passionvine (Passiflora)
- Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus): Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) *
Several plant species that were recommended for butterflies in the 1980s and 1990s have become invasive and should not be used as nectar plants.
Today these are still often recommended as butterfly plants, because the butterflies do like to nectar at them, but responsible wildlife gardeners also need to look at the consequences of our gardening decisions on the surrounding ecosystems. Help wildlife and learn what is invasive in your area, such as these Florida invasives:
Lantana (Lantana camara) The lantana most commonly sold at nurseries is listed as a Category I invasive exotic species by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council. The native Pineland Lantana (L. depressa), hybridizes with the exotic ones to further damage the ecosystem.
Mexican Petunia (Ruellia brittoniana) is highly invasive and a Category I invasive species. It thrives in a range of environments, rapidly grows, loves disturbed locations, has prolific seed production, and high germination rate.
Blue Porterweed (Stachytarpheta urticifolia) A Category II invasive, is often confused in guidebooks with the shorter native Porterweed (S. jamaicensis), and is another plant that hybridizes and effects the native gene pool.
Green Shrimp Plant (Ruellia blechum) A Category II invasive – a host for non-native Malachite butterflies, and sometimes hosts White Peacock or Buckeye butterflies. It spreads very fast.
Wedelia (W. trilobata) Touted for its nectar, ability to fill in quickly, its drought tolerance and love of heat and sun – it does TOO well. It is a Category II invasive.
Christmas cassia (Senna pendula var. glabrata) is a Category I invasive, this winter bloomer grown in Florida as an ornamental since the 1940s. There are many alternative non-invasive cassias.
Calico Flower (Aristolochia littoralis) is a Category II invasive grown for its unusual flower and as a butterfly host, though it is toxic to some Swallowtail caterpillars. It can weigh down native plants and cause tree canopy collapse. This species is difficult to control once established.
Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is not a listed invasive, but has naturalized in the south eastern U.S. It grows aggressively, establishes itself in dry or mucky soils and has been sited as a vector of disease for the threatened Monarchs. Caution would be advised.
Kick the Chemicals
Integrated pest management, or IPM, is a common-sense process you can use to solve pest problems while minimizing risks to people and the environment. It can be used anywhere. With IPM, instead of eliminating the pests you see right now, you take actions to keep pests from becoming a problem. For example, the wildflower Partridge Pea is both a butterfly host and nectar plant, while also attracting a wasp that preys on Mole Crickets, a frequent turf pest. IPM works like this:
Sighting a single pest does not always mean control is needed. Establish a point at which pest populations indicate that pest control action must be taken. With good biodiversity, you may never reach that threshold.
Monitor and Identify Pests
Many organisms are innocuous, and some are even beneficial. Identifying the good guys from the bad guys will save you a lot of time and energy. This monitoring and identification removes the possibility that pesticides will be used when they are not really needed or that the wrong kind of pesticide will be used.
As a first line of defence, you prevent pests from becoming a threat. In an agricultural crop, this may mean cultural methods, such as crop rotation, changing irrigation methods or selecting pest-resistant varieties. In a home you may caulk cracks to keep insects or rodents from entering a building. In a garden, you could use biological controls such as bird, frog and bat houses that encourage natural predators to control pests.
Once monitoring, identification, and action thresholds indicate that pest control is required, IPM then evaluate the proper control method both for effectiveness and risk. Effective, less risky pest controls are chosen first, including mechanical control, such as covers, hand picking, using a strong stream of water on aphids, or soapy water directly on insects. If further monitoring indicate that less risky controls are not working, then additional pest control methods would be employed, such as targeted spraying of pesticides, following label directions, avoiding times when pollinators are present and preventing over-spray or wind drift. You county Extension Office can help you with using Integrated Pest Management.
Leave It Up Over Winter
Leave your garden standing for winter. Avoid the impulse to create a tidy or clean landscape. Many butterflies overwinter in leaf litter or brush piles as adults (mourning cloak), as caterpillars (viceroy), or in a chrysalis (black swallowtail). Butterflies aren’t the only insects hibernating – many moths and beneficial native bees are out there taking shelter, too. Try to wait until the last possible moment each spring to cut back your plants so you don’t disturb the gentle creatures waking in March and April. Besides, a standing winter garden is beautiful to look at; full of bright oranges, rusts, and tans.
Insects evolved to use the plants that grew naturally around them. Some gardeners, will use showy tropical versions that are similar, but too toxic and actually harmful for the young. What’s unfortunate is that the butterflies still lay eggs on it anyway, the eggs will hatch, but most of the caterpillars won’t survive. Even if you aren’t gardening for butterflies, please avoid these.
Is Your Pipevine, Swallowtail-safe?
Aristolochia gigantea (giant Dutchman’s pipe) and Aristolochia elegans (Calico flower) are toxic to many of them. Calico flower is also a CATEGORY II invasive.
Try one of these swallowtail-safe species instead:
1. Aristolochia tomentosa– woolly pipevine (native) USDA zones 5-10
2. Aristolochia serpentaria – Virginia snakeroot (native) USDA zones 5a-8b
3. Aristolochia californica– California pipevine (native to California) USDA zones 8a-10b
Passion Flower Poison
Red passion vines such as, Passiflora racemosa & P. coccinea, are tropicals and toxic to caterpillars. Purple, blue and white varieties are safe caterpillar host plants. ‘Lady Margaret,’ is a burgundy flowered hybrid that fritillaries will lay their eggs on, but not usually until their favorites are taken and sometimes not at all. There are seven native species in Florida.
The book Butterfly Gardening for the South by Geyata Ajilvsgi says, “Before purchasing a cultivated or exotic plant, inspect the stems carefully and run your fingers along the stems and leaves. If they have rough hairs, do not purchase for butterfly usage. As a protective measure, some tropical species of Passiflora have evolved sharply pointed, recurved hairs which puncture the skin of caterpillars and eventually kill them.”
Plumeria – A Monarch’s Mistake
Dr Scott R. Shaw reports that Monarchs will lay large numbers of eggs on Plumeria (Frangipani). It is very closely related to the milkweeds and is also from the Monarch’s natural range. In a glasshouse situation, female monarchs were observed to place a comparable volume of eggs onto both milkweed and Plumeria leaves. However, Plumeria is not suitable as a food plant , and a complete egg-dump. It is evidently chemically similar, and females are attracted to these plants, but once the eggs hatch successfully, the young larvae die quickly. The eggs are therefore wasted, and may partly be implicated in Monarch’s reduced numbers.
The Monarch Migration Is A Hard Road
Monarchs have amazed people with their annual migration from Mexico to Canada, a difficult journey up to 3,000 miles. It requires 4 generations of the insect to complete, yet young monarchs, that should know nothing about the flight pattern through North America, relay north – resting, birthing and dining on milkweed as they go. In the fall, a lone generation will make the return in one push. The monarch is the only butterfly species in the world to undertake such a long-distance round-trip migration.
This migration is now threatened by environmental factors such as global warming, Mexican habitat loss, pesticides, loss of milkweed along the migration route, and urban development of farm land. They are under consideration to be listed as an Endangered species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service summed it up in one grim statistic: Since 1990, about 970 million have vanished (nearly 1 billion). Now only about 30 million remain – a decline of 90%. Monarchs need a very large population size to be resilient to severe weather, predation and disease. A single winter storm in 2002 once killed up to 500 million monarchs -14 times the entire current population.
A century ago it was said that clouds of them darkened the sky, and tree branches broke under the weight of gathered monarchs.
No Milkweeds = No Monarchs
Milkweed, the caterpillar’s only food source, is being eradicated on Midwestern cropland where most monarchs were once born. Studies show that Monarchs lay nearly four times more eggs per plant on milkweed growing in cropland than in other areas, making its loss even more devastating. USFWS has begun growing milkweed in areas it controls to create 200,000 acres of habitat along the I-35 corridor from Texas to Minnesota, where 50% of Monarchs migrate. Private landowners are also needed to cultivate native milkweed on their land and to eliminate or reduce pesticides on their lawns and gardens. Support its use as a roadside wildflower.
Because of the warm climate and continuous availability of host plants, Florida has a non-migratory population. Cold winter temperatures in northern Florida can kill monarchs at any life stage and they are more common in southern Florida. The state seems to host migratory monarchs, but there are competing hypotheses regarding how these migrants travel to, from, or through Florida. Thousands of monarchs have been witnessed on oil platforms in the central Gulf of Mexico, indicating that they cross from Louisiana to northeastern Mexico each fall. Monarchs arriving in Florida may also stay and become part of the local breeding populations.
Note on Tropical milkweed: A. curassavica, available at many retail nurseries is not native to the U.S. and is naturalizing in the wild. Science is discovering that its long bloom time may have some detrimental effects on monarch populations as a source of spreading disease. If you do have tropical milkweed in your garden, it is recommended to cut the plant back in the winter months to promote natural Monarch cycles. There are 21 native milkweed species in Florida. While some of these species may not be quite as showy, they work perfectly well as monarch attractants. Gardeners should rest assured that monarchs are well adapted to consuming these native species.
Butterfly & Bee Bath
Most butterflies feed on nectar from flowers. However, butterflies also need water for hydration and other nutrients, like salts and minerals, that nectar can’t provide. Butterflies will land on a shallow patch of muddy or soggy ground, to drink water in comfort and safety. This behavior is called puddling.
* Bees can also use this, if they can drink without risk of falling into standing water.*
Building a puddling area in your own yard is a great way to encourage pollinators to visit. This project can be as simple or detailed as you desire – here’s what to do:
- Choose a Location: Ideally, you want to locate your puddling area near the butterfly plants in your garden already. Place it somewhere convenient for observation as well. A shadier spot will help slow evaporation.
- Choose a Container: It’s best to use a shallow container of some sort to contain the puddling area. A terra cottta saucer, old dish, large seashell, or whatever you like. Set it directly on the ground, elevated or hanging.
- Provide Landing Spots: Fill your container with dirt or sand. If you use dirt, avoid potting soils with fertilizers or other additives – butterflies can be pretty sensitive to chemicals. You may also include flat rocks to provide a dry spot for sunning .
- Keep Moist: Without rainfall, your puddling area will likely dry out in the sun each day. Fill with water (water from a rain barrel is great) until the surface is wet.
- Optional Supplements: Slices of old fruit, or even manure, can provide additional minerals. A separate dish, that is easy to clean dish may be best for this.
- Be Patient: It might take awhile for butterflies to discover your little oasis, but they should come around eventually.
Butterflies see the world much differently than humans do. They can see red, green, blue, and UV. The ability to see the Ultraviolet spectrum is very helpful, as their compound eyes create a pixelated view, which is very blurry. However, there are UV patterns everywhere. The ones on flowers help them find nectar, and the patterns on other butterflies help them find each other.
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