Attracting butterflies to your garden

Monarch butterflies could soon be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Monarch populations have plummeted in the last two decades, dropping an estimated 90 percent from numbers in the 1990s. Scientists agree that the leading culprit in the monarch butterfly decline is genetically modified foods (GMOs).

Designed to resist applications of the popular glyphosate-based herbicide, best known as Monsanto’s Roundup, many of the GMO crops grown in the U.S. thrive in regions alongside milkweed—the monarch butterfly’s sole food source. Roundup targets milkweed, which farmers of GMO crops including corn and soy, now consider a pest plant. Its numbers have declined by 80 percent in the past 20 years. GMO crops are now being grown on more than 150 million acres of land in the U.S. and the spread of those crops over the last several decades parallel the monarch’s decline.

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Monarchs eat in the U.S. as they make their way down to Mexico for the winter. But the number of monarchs completing the journey is now staggeringly low. Last year, the World Wildlife Fund reported that butterflies were only found in 1.7 acres across 11 sanctuaries in Mexico, “down from a high of 45 acres in 1996.”

One of the most important steps consumers can take to help monarchs is to avoid genetically modified foods. Look for Non-GMO Project verified foods and certified organic foods, and avoid overly processed foods.

You can also do monarchs and other butterflies some good with a strategically planted garden designed to attract these important pollinators. Every little bit helps!

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How to Attract Butterflies to Your Garden

  1. Ditch the pesticides. This doesn’t mean you can’t do pest control in your garden, but certain pesticides, particularly malathion, Sevin, and diazinon, will kill butterflies. If you’re active with a neighborhood council or community garden, mention this to the members as well. And why not take it a step further to help educate your community on safe pest control methods? Here’s a great resource.
  2. Grow native plants. Growing native plants in your garden is akin to supporting your local farmers markets. It’s better for the planet, provides you with the easiest to care for crops, and it will support pollinators like butterflies and other local fauna that have evolved with the local flora.
  3. Keep the sun in mind. Even if you have just a small patch of land or a balcony, if it gets good sun, you could help support butterflies. There’s a reason we often associate butterflies with gorgeous sunny days; they typically only feed in full sun.
  4. Plant the right colors. Butterflies like bright colors. Think red, yellow, orange, pink and purple. And make sure the blossoms are flat-topped or have short flowering tubes.
  5. Plant the right milkweed. Monarchs only eat from the milkweed plant. But did you know that there are many types of milkweed? If you plant the wrong one for your region, it might not do monarchs any good. Check out this handy guide for finding the right milkweed for your local butterflies.
  6. Create butterfly spas. Okay, so you don’t need to invest in a hot tub or sauna (but if you want me to visit, you should), but butterflies do require a little R&R, so why not invite them to do it in your yard? They prefer to rest in full sun, so nice flat rocks, tables or chairs for them to sun in will bring these gorgeous creatures to your yard. They also love puddling, which is basically hanging out in damp sand or mud where they drink a little water and mineralize. You can create specific puddling spots for the butterflies by filling shallow dishes or pans with sand and a bit of water and placing them in sunny spots in your yard.
  7. The National Wildlife Federation recommends the following plants for common butterflies:

  • Acmon Blue – buckwheat, lupines, milkvetch
  • American Painted Lady – cudweed, everlast
  • Baird’s Swallowtail – dragon sagebrush
  • Black Swallowtail – parsley, dill, fennel, common rue
  • Coral Hairstreak – wild black cherry, American and chickasaw plum, black chokeberry
  • Dun Skipper – sedges, grasses including purpletop
  • Eastern Tiger Swallowtail – wild black cherry, ash, tulip tree, willow, sweetbay, basswood
  • Giant Swallowtail – prickly ash, citrus, common rue, hoptree, gas plant, torchwood
  • Gray Comma – gooseberry, azalea, elm
  • Great Purple Hairstreak – mistletoe
  • Gulf Fritillary – maypops, other passion vines
  • Henry’s Elfin – redbud, dahoon and yaupon hollies, maple-leaved viburnum, blueberries
  • Monarch – milkweeds
  • Painted Lady (Cosmopolite) – thistles, mallows, nievitas, yellow fiddleneck
  • Pygmy Blue – saltbush, lamb’s quarters, pigweed
  • Red Admiral/White Admiral – wild cherries, black oaks, aspens, yellow and black birch
  • Silver-Spotted Skipper – locusts, wisteria, other legumes
  • Spicebush Swallowtail – sassafras, spicebush
  • Sulphurs – clover, peas, vetch, alfalfa, asters
  • Variegated Fritillary – passion flower, maypop, violets, stonecrop, purslane
  • Viceroy – willows, cottonwood, aspen
  • Western Tailed Blue – vetches, milkvetches
  • Western Tiger Swallowtail – willow, plum, alder, sycamore, hoptree, ash
  • Woodland Skipper – grasses
  • Zebra Swallowtail – pawpaw

Lead image source: Me in ME

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How to Attract Butterflies: 17 Tips (2020 Guide)

How do you attract butterflies to your yard?

I have been pondering this question recently after visiting my grandparents. They have managed to create an incredible pollinator garden in their backyard, full of beautiful flowers that bloom throughout the whole summer.

One of their favorite activities is watching butterflies flutter around their yard.

My grandpa has even built a small, screened house in the garage where they raise caterpillars they have found. Once the adult emerges from the chrysalis, the adult butterfly gets released back into the garden.

My kids (and me) had so much fun catching the caterpillars and watching the butterflies, that I knew had to start focusing more attention on attracting these beneficial insects to our yard.

So I have spent the last few months doing a ton of research. I read books, collected articles, and asked my grandparents all sorts of butterfly related questions.

And I’m proud to announce that I have started building my own butterfly garden.

(I will update this picture next summer once the plants mature.)

Today, I’m going to share everything that I have learned so far.

Here are 17 tips you can use to attract butterflies!

Tip #1: Provide NATIVE flowers full of nectar!

You probably know that butterflies are attracted to bright, beautiful flowers. The reason for this is because the adults NEED the nectar that flowers provide for nourishment and energy. In fact, nectar is the ONLY food source for most adult butterflies.

There is probably no better way to see butterflies in your backyard than planting lots of flowers.

  • RELATED: 20 PROVEN Plants That Attract Butterflies

But flowers are not created equal when attracting butterflies.

Here are a few recommendations when choosing flowers for your butterfly garden:

A. Don’t select flowers that are long and tubular.

These types of flowers are better suited for hummingbirds. Butterflies will have a hard time reaching the nectar at the bottom of the flower.

RELATED: 28 Common Flowers That Attract Hummingbirds (Native, Easy To Grow)

B. Look for flowers native to North America.

The reason for this is that butterflies that live in North America have evolved and adapted alongside native flowers. The tropical plant from Malaysia may look pretty, but there is a high chance native insects won’t use it.

    • Native Plant search tool (National Wildlife Federation) – Enter your zip code for a list of recommended flowers, grasses, trees, and shrubs.

C. Shop at a local garden center or nursery.

Local experts can provide native plants for your region and hardiness zone.

    • Buying a lot of flowers can become expensive! You may consider growing your plants from seed, which can save hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Or try to find any friends who are dividing some of their plants, and see if they will give you some.

D. Select plants with various heights.

Smaller species of butterflies tend to prefer feeding low to the ground, while larger species enjoy staying high.

Tip #2: Design your butterfly garden BEFORE you start planting.

I know you are excited about starting your butterfly garden. But please don’t just start randomly buying stuff from your local garden center and planting.

Try to design where you are going to put your new flowers and plants first.

Here are a few tips when planning your butterfly garden:

  • Layer your plants by height. Shrubs and the tallest flowers should go to the back, then plant those of medium height, followed by the shortest ones in the front. This strategy allows you to see all of your flowers and is also visually pleasing (for humans).

  • Include lots of different types of plants to attract the widest variety of butterflies. Having more plants typically gives you more bloom time, which attracts more pollinators.
    • RELATED: 22 PROVEN Flowers That Attract BEES!
  • Don’t forget about annuals. While perennials come back every year, they have a fairly short bloom time. Annuals typically bloom all summer!
  • Plant the same types of flowers together. It seems that butterflies are attracted the most to large clumps of blooming flowers together, versus that same flower spread around your whole garden. This might be because butterflies don’t see well, and it’s much easier to see a mass of the same color instead of single flowers all over the place.
  • Keep your bird feeders away! If possible, try to put your butterfly garden as far away from your bird feeders as possible. Most birds like to eat caterpillars, so I think you can probably see the problem?

Tip #3: Select flowers with different bloom times.

Unfortunately, most perennial flowers only bloom for a small period each growing season. So imagine what your butterfly garden will look like if you pick plants that all bloom in mid-July! You will have dozens of butterflies for a few weeks, then nothing the rest of the year.

For example, here is a good mix of flowers that will provide colors from late spring to early fall:

A good rule of thumb is to have a MINIMUM of three types of plants in bloom at any one time during the growing season.

Tip #4: Don’t focus ONLY on “flowers.”

When I refer to the term “flowers” above, I mean small flowering plants such as Black-eyed Susans, Purple Coneflowers, or Shasta Daisies.

While these sorts of plants are great for attracting butterflies, many people forget about shrubs, trees, vines, and grasses. These types of plants feature various kinds of flowers that many butterfly species can’t resist or are host plants for caterpillars (see Tip# 5 below).

Tip #5: Don’t forget about caterpillars and HOST PLANTS.

When trying to attract butterflies, it’s common for people to focus only on flowering plants for the ADULT butterfly.

But let’s take a look at the complete butterfly life cycle below:

You will notice that a butterfly has four stages to its life cycle. The egg, caterpillar, chrysalis (pupa), and the adult butterfly.

And only the ADULT butterfly use flowers. The other three stages (egg, caterpillar, chrysalis) use something called a HOST plant.

Host plants are plants that adult females use to lay their eggs on, and then the larvae caterpillars will eat. Most butterfly species will only use a few different types of plants as hosts. As soon as the caterpillars hatch, they can immediately start munching away.

  • RELATED: 34 Host Plants For Butterflies & Caterpillars (New Guide)

If you don’t include host plants in your yard, then you are missing out on much of the butterfly life cycle!

Since many host plants are weeds, grasses, or wildflowers that are not that “pretty,” many butterfly gardeners designate a particular spot in their yard just for host plants and let them grow crazy.

I think finding and observing caterpillars is half the fun of attracting butterflies!

Tip #6: Place your flowers in the sun.

Make sure to put your primary butterfly plants in an area that receives lots of sunlight.

First, most flowering plants need a lot of sun to thrive.

Second, adult butterflies typically only feed in sunny areas. Interestingly, most butterfly species need their temperature above 85 degrees F to fly well. On many cloudy days, butterflies become inactive, and they are hard to see. If your garden is sunny throughout the day, it also allows more time for feeding, fluttering, and egg-laying.

Lastly, sunshine is also helpful for eggs and caterpillars. When it’s warm, they both develop more rapidly – sometimes up to 50% faster!

Tip #7: Buy a butterfly feeder.

If you don’t have space to plant a beautiful garden full of nectar-filled flowers, then you should consider buying a butterfly feeder.

Songbird Essentials Butterfly Feeder View Cost – Amazon

Butterfly feeders typically have a small reservoir that is filled with homemade nectar, along with a spot to place some fruit. Some species of butterflies skip nectar altogether and ONLY feed on rotting fruit.

Luckily, making nectar for butterflies is easy! It’s the same recipe that you use for hummingbird nectar.

  • RELATED: The Hummingbird Food Guide (Easy Nectar Recipe + FAQ)

If you decide to purchase a butterfly feeder, make sure that you change the nectar often! It can be harmful to allow creatures to drink spoiled sugar water.

Tip #8: Don’t let your butterflies blowwwwww away.

Because of their light weight, butterflies are very susceptible to the wind. It’s hard for them to fly in breezy conditions, and they expend a lot of energy while doing so.

If your backyard can be windy, try to provide some protection by planting large shrubs, trees, or grasses around your yard. Certain types of fences can also help block some wind.

If you haven’t built a butterfly garden yet, try to place it in a spot that is mostly protected from the wind. This could be on the side of your house or barn, or maybe even alongside a row of trees.

Tip #9: Eliminate pesticides and insecticides.

This tip seems pretty straightforward, right?

Pesticides and insecticides are not selective. They KILL everything.

If you want butterflies in your backyard, you shouldn’t spray toxic chemicals everywhere that are designed to kill insects.

Not to mention, you expose yourself, your family, and your pets to these harmful poisons.

Tip #10: Provide a place for “puddling.”

Butterflies need water to survive. But unlike most other creatures, butterflies don’t typically drink water straight from the source, like a lake, stream, or birdbath.

Instead, butterflies partake in something called “puddling,” which is when they visit damp soil or a mud puddle to obtain their water.

Try to create an area where butterflies can do some puddling!

Here are two ideas:

  • Obtain a small dish and put coarse sand and a bit of dirt inside. Find a place in your garden to place the pan and keep it moist.
  • Save an empty milk jug and fill it with water. Find an inconspicuous place in your yard to hang the container. Then poke a small hole in the bottom, so the water drips out slowly. The dripping water will create a small area that is always damp for butterflies!

Do you want to supercharge your “puddling” spot?

Another benefit that butterflies obtain from “puddling” is they get essential minerals and salts that help them survive.

So to really help butterflies, you can add salt to your wet mud.

Here’s how:

First, find a spot in your garden where you don’t want plants to grow anymore. Remember that salt is an excellent natural herbicide.

Once the area is damp, mix a small amount of non-iodized sea salt (or wood ashes) into the mud.

Voila! Now you have your very own salt lick that also acts as a spot for “puddling.”

Tip #11: Put some flat stones in your garden.

As we mentioned earlier, butterflies need to be warm to start flying.

And rocks hold heat much better than soil and mulch.

Butterflies will instantly be attracted to warm rocks that have been heated by the sun. They can bask in the sunlight while absorbing warmth from the rock.

In addition to providing a safe area where butterflies can soak up the sun, rocks give visual interest. I use flat stones as a pathway through my flower garden, so there are dozens of places for sunbathing. We just have to be careful not to step on any. 🙂

Tip #12: Buy a butterfly house.

Installing a butterfly house in your pollinator garden gives butterflies a DRY place to hide. It also gives them a place to get out of the wind or hide at night.

Unfortunately, most enthusiasts would agree that it’s rare to see a butterfly use a house.

But even if a butterfly never actually uses the house, I think they make attractive additions to flower gardens!

Instead of a butterfly house, you may want to consider a native bee house.

Crown Bees Native Bee Station

Bee houses work MUCH better at actually attracting insects.

  • RELATED: Bee Houses 101: Where to buy and how to use them!

Tip #13: Don’t clean your yard (that much)!

Many people pick up every leaf and stick that ever touches their precious yard.

While this may look nice, it’s not beneficial for butterflies, other insects, birds, squirrels, etc.

Leaf litter and decaying wood provide tons of habitat for many insect species in different development stages. Most butterflies don’t fly to Mexico each winter like Monarchs, but instead, overwinter in the United States and Canada. They NEED and rely upon the leaf litter and other debris that falls from trees.

Firewood and brush piles make excellent shelter for overwintering butterflies.

Tip #14: Join a local butterfly club.

The best way to learn about what works best for attracting butterflies in your area is to join a local butterfly club!

If you are interested, click the link below to find the closest near you.

  • North American Butterfly Association local chapters

Tip #15: Certify your habitat.

Once you are done creating a beautiful butterfly habitat in your backyard, you might as well get it certified through the National Wildlife Federation.

  • View how to certify your habitat HERE.

Once you’re approved, you even get a fancy sign that you can display!

And if you’re not approved, then at least you can get some recommendations from experts on what to do next.

Tip #16: Buy these books to keep learning.

Are you excited about attracting butterflies and want to learn more?

Here are some of my favorite books that I own and reference often:

*Links take you to Amazon.*

  • Attracting Native Pollinators

  • Gardening for Butterflies

  • Stokes Butterfly Book

Tip #17: Just get started!

The best way to learn how to attract butterflies is to start doing something.

Every region and area is unique, so what works for somebody else might not for you, and vice versa.

Buy your first plants and get digging. Sketch out your butterfly garden design. Buy a hummingbird feeder or book.

I don’t care what it is. Just do something to get started!

Butterfly Garden
Plans: Designing a Perfect Butterfly Garden

Butterfly Houses and Farms

If you have a place in your yard and would like to assist in the conservation efforts for the most beautiful creatures in the world, then you will certainly want to create a butterfly garden. Many species of butterflies are disappearing due to their loss of natural habitat because of expanding urbanization and business development. Creating a natural habitat in a place where no bulldozer dare roam, like in your yard, is one of the best ways to save the butterflies, as well as creating a beautiful and peaceful place for you to enjoy the butterflies as they come to visit you. You will need to research your desired butterfly guests and find out what kinds of plants they like. Once you do that you can begin to design your butterfly garden plan.

There are two types of plants that you will want to consider in your butterfly garden plan. Nectar plants, which are the plants that butterflies like to feed on, and host plants, which are plants that butterflies lay their eggs on and their caterpillars like to eat. You may also wish to add some adornments to your butterfly garden that will also help to attract butterflies, like a butterfly house or two and some butterfly feeders.

Different butterflies prefer different nectar plants, and some like more than one. Providing several different types of nectar plants in your butterfly garden that have varying blooming stages is the ideal way to attract butterflies throughout the season. Be sure to have several types that bloom in the late summer and early fall because this is when butterflies are the most populous. For the best looking butterfly garden plan, make sure to put the taller plants and flowers, such as roses behind the shorter ones. Most people like to start with a large butterfly bush in the corner and work around it with smaller plants and flowers.

Adult butterflies will visit for a longer period if they find plants to lay their eggs on, which you can read about in our host plants article. The young caterpillars feed on the host plants until they form their cocoons. Baby caterpillars eat quite a lot and will make your plants look as if they are being destroyed, but don’t worry about that, this is necessary for their survival. If you don’t want to look at the eaten plants, simply plant them in the center or the back of your butterfly garden.

There are a couple of things to watch out for when you design your butterfly garden. Don’t plant your host plants too far away from your nectar plants. It is best to mix them or place them right next to each other. The butterflies will want to lay their eggs closer to the plants that their young will feed on. Also, never use insecticides on your butterfly garden. Remember that butterflies are an insect species and these chemicals will kill them. If you follow these few tips, and find the right plants for your butterfly garden, you will help to save the butterflies and have a wonderful place in your yard to enjoy all season long.

Butterfly garden – Picture of Reiman Gardens, Ames

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Spring Azure Butterfly(Celastrina ladon)

The Spring Azure is a butterfly of the Lycaenidae family. It is found in North America from Alaska and Canada south of the tundra through most of the United States except the Texas coast, southern plain and peninsular Florida; south in the mountains to Colombia.

This butterfly is on the wing from early spring to fall, and sometimes longer in the Deep South.

This butterfly is one of the earliest butterflies to emerge from its pupa and thus heralds the beginning of spring and better weather to come.

Description:

This butterfly is generally a metallic-blue above and gray below.

It does exhibit large variations in color depending on the time of year and geographic location where it is found.

From wing tip to tip, this tiny Azure measures 3/4 of an inch to 1 and 1/4 inches.

Habitat:

This butterfly frequents woodlands, parks, open fields, roadsides and gardens.

Habits:

Female Azures often fly up into trees, such as dogwood and deposits their eggs on the flower buds.

Male Azures can be seen congregating in shallow mud-puddles and moist soil along stream, roads and ditches.

Larvae and Hosts:

Selected host plants include various shrubs and trees.

Dogwood (Cornus), viburnum (Viburnum), New Jersey tea (Ceanothus), blueberry (Vaccinium),

Larvae are greenish or pinkish, with a dark stripe on the back.

Nectar Plants:

Plant several low growing flowering plants in your gardens to attract this tiny beauty.

Offer mud-puddles or watering holes for all your wildlife.

Offer fresh water for all of your wildlife.

They are variously known as Spring Azure, Summer Azure, Hops Azure and Holly Azure.

Until recently, all North American azures were thought of as one wildly variable species, and their classification is still being studied.

It has been suggested that we layman simply enjoy these butterflies as azures and leave it at that.

Spring Azure and Other Common Butterflies
A Butterfly Friendly Yard
Create a Butterfly Garden
Nectar and Host Plants
Native flowers
Butterfly Homepage
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Spring Azure (Celestrina ladon)

Differences in color, shade, and pattern within the Spring Azure species complicate its identification almost as much as the similarities to cousins.

The Spring Azure Butterfly resembles many other close relatives. It differs from other species in the Celestrina genus on its underwing. There is no orange spot along the hindwing on them and its markings are thin and linear. It also has many subspecies and variations making identification a bit more complicated than other butterflies. Shades of light blue, gray, white, and taupe are all possible color variations. Males are attracted to moisture and have been found congregating at mud puddles. They have also been seen visiting streams and even moist animal dung and carrion. They typically mate in mid-afternoon and evening. Females can raise many broods in one year. Look for Spring Azure Butterflies around and along roadsides, forest edges and areas with abundant shrubs through the summer and into fall. They are attracted to lights at night.
Caterpillars are shaped like wide, flat slugs, not tubes. They eat flower parts from a variety of shrubs like dogwood and blueberry, and eventually secrete a sweet substance on themselves that attracts ants. It is thought that the presence of many ants on it provides protection from predators like birds or other insects. They pupate in the ground and remain there over the winter and emerge in late April.

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