I suspect everyone remembers lazy summer afternoons spent watching butterflies in the garden. These brightly colored fluttering creatures are fascinating to watch. Their beautiful colors, wing designs and flight patterns make them the most attractive if not the most desirable insects in the garden.
All butterflies have four distinct life stages. The first is the egg, the second is the larval stage (often referred to as the caterpillar), the third is the pupal stage (referred to as the cocoon) and finally, the adult butterfly. While we love to view the beautiful adults, the caterpillars often have destructive feeding habits.Some gardeners' interest in butterflies leads them to want to provide safe harbor and a desirable food supply to attract them. Before attempting to do this, check the food source. Those used by the immature larvae or caterpillars are often different from those used by the adults. Adult butterflies do no damage but spend their time searching for food plants required by the caterpillars. They lay their eggs on or near these food plants. This gives rise to the conflict between caterpillars that feed on our plants and the desire to attract the adults that provide enjoyment as we watch them.
Adult butterflies are attracted to nectar from flowers, certain colors of flowers, honeydew produced by aphids, plant sap, runny fruit or bird droppings. Some butterflies are attracted to moist sand or mud around puddles of water, and although it is not fully understood why they congregate there, it is thought to be because they need certain minerals from the soil. They prefer shelter from high winds but like open sunny areas. Windbreaks are an effective way of increasing the attractiveness of an area to butterflies. An accompanying chart lists plants that are often used to attract butterflies to gardens.
Many of the common attractive nectar plants butterflies prefer are referred to as weeds. Dandelions, milkweeds, dogbane, some thistles and other butterfly-attracting plants are excluded from many well-manicured and attractive gardens because of this. In addition, some weeds are "noxious" and cannot be cultivated legally in the state. Butterflies also develop among certain garden crops and become pests if the flower or vegetable crop is more desirable to us than the butterfly. European cabbage butterflies attack broccoli, cabbage and many kinds of mustards, while black swallowtail butterflies attack parsley and dill. A second chart lists common butterflies and the food of caterpillars and adults.
Avoid using insecticides in gardens if you want to attract butterflies, because the chemicals kill the caterpillars. Adult butterflies may also be killed by resting on plants sprayed with insecticides.
As with everything else in life there are good and bad aspects of butterflies. If you are a butterfly fancier, it may be a good excuse to plant a few plants that attract them as well as let some of the "weeds" grow and develop. Plant a little extra in the vegetable garden or use some screens over prize plants to allow these wondrous creatures to grow, develop and provide enjoyment.