I’ve loved watching butterflies for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been enchanted by their many colors, patterns, the way they fly gracefully, or lopsided, or in a jerky up-and-down-and-all-around fashion. It’s not uncommon to see me quietly and carefully creeping around a flower bed trying to catch that perfect image or video of a beautiful butterfly. Because most species of butterflies and moths only live for two weeks to one month, they’ve got lots of things to do and are luckily equipped with a variety of traits specially designed to give them a chance at their best life.
Butterflies have a simple symbiotic relationship with flowers. The butterflies feed themselves with the nutrients in the sweet nectar that the flowers provide, and the flowers need the butterflies to collect tiny bits of pollen on their thin legs and deposit it on another flower, a process called cross pollination. This process aids in the formation of quality seeds and reproduction, helps to prevent disease in the plants, creates new species of plants and keeps plants healthy. When a healthy ecosystem exists, happily pollinated plants provide both food and shelter for insects, animals and birds.
There are several differences between butterflies and other pollinators that make them an important part of the ecosystem. While bees fill their tiny backpacks and leg pockets with powdery yellow pollen to take back to their hives and share with their family, butterflies delicately sip sugary nectar from flowers with their long, tube-like mouths, called a proboscis. While they are feeding, pollen collects on their bodies and is deposited in each flower it lands on.
Sam Burback with Klehm Arboretum explains that “Butterflies are important pollinators of many flowers, especially native wildflowers. Butterflies have good color vision and prefer brightly colored flowers, including red which bees cannot see, and prefer large flower heads to land on or smaller flowers that are in clusters which also gives them an area to stand on. Some flowers have even developed a fragrance that mimics the pheromones that butterflies produce to attract the opposite sex to trick those butterflies into visiting their flowers.”Sam Burback with Klehm Arboretum
An article on BirdsAndWild.com points out that in addition to having the best color range of all insects and being attracted to a larger variety of flowers than bees are, butterflies travel longer distances to find food and are able to pollinate larger areas than bees can.
I like to imagine that the life of a butterfly is mostly centered around greedily sticking their proboscis in every flower they see and drinking themselves silly, but these essential creatures face a lot of challenges during their short time on Earth. An article titled Butterflies, Beetles, and Bees, Oh My! by Nate Smith and Science Reference Specialist Ashley Cuffia states that there are three main factors that are negatively affecting pollinators: Pesticides that aren’t insect-specific and kill both the harmful bugs and the helpful pollinators, the rise of a variety of diseases, and damage to or total destruction of their ecosystem and food supply.
There are so many ways we can help butterflies thrive and continue to pollinate our flowers. Sophie Hirsh’s blog post Which Plants Attract Butterflies? Support Pollinators With a Butterfly Garden on Your Lawn suggests “Instead of raking and getting rid of the leaves that naturally fall on your lawn, just leave them be. As the foundation explains, dead leaves are the perfect habitat for butterfly larvae and pupae, as well as microbes, worms, toads, salamanders, and other critters. If you are unable to leave dead leaves on your lawn due to your homeowner’s association, the David Suzuki Foundation recommends collecting them and filling up planter beds with the dead leaves. Additionally, the foundation recommends letting puddles of mud form and letting some fruit from fruit trees rot on your lawn, as some butterflies prefer to eat mud puddles and rotting fruit.”
You can also plant a variety of annuals and perennials in your yard that will bloom all year round. Plant an array of colors and flowers that are filled with nectar and pollen. Butterflies prefer flowers that have open petals, short tubular blooms, flowers with large, colorful petals and small flowers in a large cluster. A short list of butterfly attracting plants includes Bee Balm, Black Eyed Susans, Butterfly Bush, Button Bush, Daylily, Dianthus, Lavender, Heliotrope, Pansy, Phlox, Purple Coneflower, Stonecrop, Verbena, Yarrow, and Zinnia. A much longer list can be found by visiting https://www.allaboutgardening.com/plants-that-attract-butterflies/.
- A Welcome Garden Guest Gathering Nectar by Goffle Brook Farms
- Are Butterflies Good Pollinators? by BirdsAndWild.com
- Butterflies, Beetles, and Bees, Oh My! National Pollinator Week by Nate Smith and Science Reference Specialist Ashley Cuffia
- National Pollinator Week – Butterflies & Moths By Sam Burbach, Education & Programming Coordinator
- Symbiosis: Butterflies & Flowers by Janice Vancleave
- Which Plants Attract Butterflies? Support Pollinators With a Butterfly Garden on Your Lawn by Sophie Hirsh