>> Monday, January 31, 2011

Host and nectar plants are important for butterflies, but also remember these additional tips for attracting butterflies:
  • Provide an open, sunny location. Butterflies like warmth and need light to see.
  • Plant or build windbreaks to calm the air. Butterflies don't like strong breezes.
  • Stay away from pesticides. They can kill caterpillars or mature butterflies.
  • Build a "puddling" area in a recessed container. Mix half sand and half composted manure, and water thoroughly.

They're beautiful, they don't bite, they don't carry disease, they visit both urban backyards and rural fields with equal pleasure, and they do a wonderful job of pollinating plants.

Jeffrey Glassberg, founder and president of the New Jersey-based, not-for-profit North American Butterfly Association, and author of the recently published Butterflies Through Binoculars: A Field Guide to Butterflies of the East, is an ardent and passionate proponent of these painted beauties. The association he founded, NABA, is dedicated to both increasing public enjoyment and conservation of butterflies, as well as saving endangered species across the country.

NABA is made up of about 3,500 amateur butterfly enthusiasts who, among other projects, post the number and type of butterfly sightings they've recorded on the association's web page at http://www.naba.org.

For instance, on one day in mid-April, NABA watchers in Maryland and New Jersey recorded spotting eight different varieties of butterflies, from Eastern Pine Elfins to Spring Azures to Gray Hairsteaks.

Butterflies are a uniquely watchable type of wildlife. Their popularity among gardeners has been rising steadily, both for the enjoyment they bring, and for the challenge that attracting them into a prepared setting entails. Although there are some very common backyard visitors—Monarchs, Swallowtails, and such—most butterflies prefer to feed and lay their eggs in open spaces such as meadows, roadside ditches, and out-of-the-way locations. In truth, the butterflies we all commonly associate with "butterfly gardening" are really the showboats of the butterfly world--big, brightly colored, and amenable to visiting our backyards.

More than 725 species of butterflies have been observed in North America, says Glassberg, and about 575 of these occur regularly in the United States. In fact, he adds, in any particular area of the U.S., it should be possible to find about 100 species of butterfly at any one time during warm weather. The average gardener seldom observes most of these butterflies, perhaps because they're small (many are only a half-inch in size) or because they prefer to feed on weeds that flourish in fields and other neglected spots (common milkweed, dogbanes, nettles, and thistles are chief among these butterfly favorites).

Glassberg suggests that serious butterfly enthusiasts purchase binoculars which can focus at close range (under 6 feet) if they want to increase the number of butterflies they "collect" through observation, much as a bird-watcher collects species for his or her hobby.

To attract butterflies, you must create a real habitat for them. You must understand their lifecycle, from egg to larva to butterfly, and the likes, dislikes, and needs of each particular stage. After all, any good host or hostess must offer visitors a gracious and relaxing experience if he or she hopes for a return visit. You can't just plant a couple of "butterfly plants" and then stand impatiently at the kitchen window, waiting for your guests to arrive.

For instance, although most adult butterflies feed on nectar from flowers, the caterpillars that become butterflies need what is known as "host" plants. The caterpillars eat these host plants after they hatch. Good host plants include many cultivated species, from pipevines (Aristolochia spp.) to passionflowers (Passiflora spp.) to herbs such as parsley, dill, rue, and fennel. In fact, many herbs make excellent host plants.

The perfect location
First things first: Butterflies are not demanding guests, but they are particular about their surroundings.

If you want to landscape all or a portion of your yard to make it hospitable to butterflies, you need to choose an open, sunny location. Shaded areas are less attractive to butterflies because they see differently than humans do, and their eyesight may even be hampered in darker locations.

"The vast majority of butterflies are sun-lovers," Glassberg says. "Butterflies only see [well] in a fairly narrow light intensity range." Not surprisingly, all of the plants commonly suggested as butterfly magnets are sun-lovers, as well.

Once you've selected your site, consider the question of adequate over-night accommodations. Sorry to disappoint, but if you've invested in a "butterfly house," an attractive piece of wooden garden craft ostensibly designed as a butterfly home, what you really have is just a lovely piece of art. Butterflies seek shelter at night and in bad weather under leaves, among grass, or in other natural locations. It's highly unlikely, although not impossible, that they would choose to stay in a manufactured butterfly house.

Butterflies also prefer to spend their time in spots that are not windswept. If your garden is in a particularly windy location, consider adding windbreaks of some sort to create a more placid environment. Try incorporating shrubs or grasses around your garden, to serve as windbreaks and as shelter.

A butterfly bar
Of course, any good host knows that offering guests appropriate food and drink is the surest way to make a visit pleasant. Adult butterflies sip nectar from specific flowers, and we'll show you plenty of choices later on. However, butterflies also engage in a behavior known as "puddling." You may have noticed a flutter of butterflies perching at the edge of a mud puddle or another shallow, damp depression after a rain. These butterflies use their long, thin, tube-like tongues to sip both liquid and other trace elements from the puddle.

If you'd like to add this version of a butterfly bar to one corner of your butterfly garden, here's a simple way to do it. Create a small depression in the ground--an inch or two deep works fine--and place some type of waterproof container in the depression. (An upside-down garbage can lid is the perfect size.) Now fill the lid with a fine mix of one-half sand and one-half composted manure, and then use a hose to fully saturate the mixture. Voila! Instant mud puddle.

If you'd like to make your puddle more decorative, line the edges with limestone slabs or other attractive rocks. Keep the mix damp and you may find butterflies stopping by for a quick sip before they go back to visiting your flowers.

Finally, if you want butterflies, stop spraying your yard with a devil's mix of chemicals designed to leave your flowers bug - free. Insecticides and pesticides do not discriminate between a tomato hornworm and a swallowtail caterpillar. What kills one will kill the other, and that includes such environmentally benign and "natural" pest treatments as Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis).

Butterfly gardeners can either accept a few nibbled plants, or better yet, identify pests and dispose of them by hand, rather than killing caterpillars indiscriminately.

Butterfly Identification         


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