Butterfly Watching

A skipper butterfly inserting its proboscis into the flower slurping up nectar
A skipper butterfly inserting its proboscis into the flower slurping up nectar

Butterflies are flying everywhere in my yard, swooping, basking, and fluttering like graceful ballerinas in a ballet. Observing the butterflies visiting my flowers and trying to catch them with my camera is difficult at times, so I did some research about their habits to make it more likely to capture them in the lens of my camera.

A swallowtail nearing the end of its life shows some wear
A swallowtail nearing the end of its life shows some wear

Cold blooded creatures, butterflies remind me of snakes and lizards who seek out the heat of the sun for warmth, and that is exactly where you will find them. When the sun comes out, butterflies magically appear. Living for a fleeting 2 to 4 weeks, butterflies are interested in doing only two things-eating and reproducing.

Gulf Fritillary on Zinnia
Gulf Fritillary basking on Zinnia

Here are some factoids that will help you observe and understand butterfly behaviors and hopefully catch a good picture! Or just to enjoy their swooping antics.

Quick, darting little skipper butterfly on Zinnia
Quick, darting little skipper butterfly on Zinnia
  • Butterflies love the sun and need heat from the sun to warm their bodies, so you will see fewer butterflies on a cloudy day.

  • Watch where you stand when observing butterflies so you don’t cast a shadow that could scare them off.

Monarch
Monarch
  • Butterflies fly more often at 9:30 to 12 in the morning and 2 to 3:30 in the afternoon, and like a light breeze.

  • Butterflies are slower in their movements in cooler temperatures so you probably could catch them ‘basking’ in the sun at lower temperatures. Butterflies need an ideal body temperature of about 85ºF to fly. Since they’re cold-blooded animals, they can’t regulate their own body temperatures. If the air temperature falls below 55ºF, butterflies remain immobile, unable to flee from predators or feed. When air temperatures range between 82º-100ºF, butterflies can fly with ease. Cooler days require a butterfly to warm up its flight muscles, either be shivering or basking in the sun. And even sun-loving butterflies can get overheated when temperatures soar above 100ºF, and may seek shade to cool down.

Monarch basking
A basking butterfly perches with its wings outstretched in a patch of sunlight to raise its internal temperature. This is a great time to get a good picture of them
  • Butterflies don’t have any chewing mouth parts, but eat by sipping nectar, through their proboscis. The proboscis is found curled neatly on the lower side of the head when not eating. When a butterfly eats, the proboscis extends like a straw which they insert deep into the flower to suck up the nectar, a behavior called ‘nectaring’. When eating they will circle around a flower for seconds at a time, making sure to drain all the nectar.

Curled proboscis
Curled proboscis
  • Some butterflies don’t have access to flowers, such as rainforest understories, and will instead eat the liquids from fermenting fruit found on the forest floor.

Owl Butterfly feeding on fruit
Owl Butterfly feeding on fruit
  • Male butterflies can be found puddling, sipping at the moisture in puddles or wet soil. They are also benefiting from the salts dissolved in the water which increases a male butterfly’s fertility.

  • Butterflies lay their eggs on the specific host plants and are very particular in finding the perfect plant to do this. For a great list of host plants with pictures of butterflies, go to Dallas Butterflies. This includes butterflies in my region of the mid-Atlantic as well as other areas of the United States. I am always looking at my host plants to see if I can find eggs or caterpillars. A plant stripped of leaves is a good sign of caterpillars.

Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on parsley plant
Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on parsley plant
Skipper butterfly on lily
Skipper butterfly on lily

 

  • Butterfly wings are transparent. Formed of layers of chitin, a protein that makes up the insect’s exoskeleton,  thousands of tiny scales  cover the wings which reflect light in different colors. Moths and butterflies are the only insects to have scales.

Transparent wings of a swallowtail
Transparent wings of a swallowtail
  • Butterflies taste with their feet. Taste receptors on a butterfly’s feet find its host plant and locate food.  A female butterfly lands on different plants, drumming the leaves with her feet to make the plant release its juices. Spines on the back of her legs have chemo-receptors that detect the right match of plant chemicals. When she identifies the right plant after visiting at least several choices, she lays her eggs.

  • Adult butterflies can only feed on liquids, usually nectar. Modified mouthparts enable them to drink, but they can’t chew solids

Swallowtail on Mexican sunflower
Swallowtail on Mexican sunflower
  • Within about 10-12 feet, butterfly eyesight is quite good. Anything beyond that distance gets a little blurry to a butterfly. Butterflies rely on their eyesight for vital tasks, like finding mates of the same species, and finding flowers on which to feed. In addition to seeing some of the colors we can see, butterflies can see a range of ultraviolet colors invisible to the human eye. The butterflies themselves may have ultraviolet markings on their wings to help them identify one another and locate potential mates.

Swallowtail on Zinnia
Swallowtail on Zinnia
  • Lots of hungry predators are happy to make a meal of a butterfly. Some butterflies fold their wings to blend into the background using camouflage, rendering themselves all but invisible to predators. Others try the opposite strategy, wearing vibrant colors and patterns that boldly announce their presence. Brightly colored insects often pack a toxic punch if eaten, so predators learn to avoid them.

The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of  a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed
The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed

 

Plant nectar rich flowers for a steady parade of colorful butterflies to visit your garden. Go to Plant These For the Bees for ideas on plant choices which work with all pollinators. Tithonia, or Mexican Sunflower, Zinnias, and Lilies are my all time favorites for butterfly attraction and watching.

Skipper butterflies on Dahlia
Skipper butterflies on Dahlia
Bee Skep poster, go thttps://www.etsy.com/listing/182225449/18-x-24-pollination-poster-plant-these?
Bee Skep poster, go thttps://www.etsy.com/listing/182225449/18-x-24-pollination-poster-plant-these?

11 Replies to “Butterfly Watching”

  1. Excellent information. Thank you so much. Is it okay to repeat some of this info in my garden club newsletter? Of course, I’ll give you credit. Thanks Claire.

  2. I love all the butterfly photos. I love butterflies and am planting to lure them in. When we went to the butterfly gardens in Victoria BC, I learned they liked bananas. Maybe next year I’ll have more butterflies. Thanks for all the info.

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