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 easy to do with digital technology and for many people has turned into a hobby-butterflying. To make it more likely to capture them in my lens, I did some research about their habits and floral preferences.
More than 765 species of butterflies occur in North America, north of Mexico, according to the Fish and Wildlife service. Butterflies are very sensitive to weather as well as the caterpillars that turn into butterflies. Eggs and caterpillars in the hot weather hatch and grow more quickly, so here in Maryland, August is the ideal time to view butterflies. But what are the best practices to attract butterflies to your garden? And where can you go to see different species if you don’t have a garden?
Colorful flowers attract butterflies which rely on the sugar-rich nectar for food. Small patches of blooming plants lure butterflies and concentrate them in a small area. When my ‘Black Beauty’ lilies bloom in August, when the greatest number of butterflies are active, I can observe dozens at a time congregating in a small 5′ x 5′ space. For a great source of Black Beauty Lilies, go to Old House Gardens. A great source of Heirloom bulbs, this is one of my all time favorites.
Host Plants for Larval Food
Many people forget that butterflies require plants that serve the needs of all life stages of the butterfly. The insects need places to lay eggs, food plants for their larvae (caterpillars), places to form a chrysalis and nectar sources for adults. Adults are often found near their larval host plant. Why not support the entire life cycle of the butterfly?
Carry a plant identification field guide to find host plants if you go out in the field and/or plant the larval food plants in your garden. Milkweed is an easy larval food plant to start with. Go to Got Milkweed…….? post to see the benefits of this plant. For a list of host plants, go to Host Plants. I always include Asters, Sunflowers, Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Coneflowers, and Passion Flowers in my garden as common host plants.
Some butterflies rarely or never visit flowers and visit things like animal dung, dead animal remains, rotting fruit, or tree sap. Especially in rainforest understories, where flowers are hard to find, butterflies will instead eat the liquids from fermenting fruit found on the forest floor.
Moist Soil or Gravel
Many butterflies gather at mud puddles or stream banks to drink water and take in various nutrients like salts and minerals. Often when I hike on my local “Rail Trail” covered with gravel, I see butterflies swooping in and settling on the moist gravel.
Forest trails, waterways, woodland edges and power line cuts can attract diverse species of butterflies and become natural movement corridors for traveling butterflies. Adult butterflies use these for long distance migration, or to locate mates. I often go to a power line cut outs to see different species than what frequents my meadow and gardens at home.
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.
Here are some tips that will help you observe and understand butterfly behaviors and hopefully catch a good picture with your phone or camera!
Butterfly Pic Tips
- Butterflies love the sun and need heat from the sun to warm their bodies, so you will see fewer butterflies on a cloudy day. Instead choose a sunny warm day with a slight 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 by 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.
- Watch where you stand when observing butterflies so you don’t cast a shadow that could scare them off. Move slowly with no abrupt movements
- Ditch your tripod-with a moving target, the tripod is useless
- Butterflies fly more often at 9:30 to 12 in the morning and 2 to 3:30 in the afternoon
- When I see a butterfly alight on a flower, I press the shutter on my camera which can take up to 11 frames a second. At least one of those many pictures that you snapped will be a winner.
- 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.
- Male butterflies are 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. 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.
- 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. Sometimes you can take advantage of this property and photograph butterflies with sunlight shining through their wings.
- 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. I follow a butterfly for a long time, hoping to catch her in this behavior to snap a picture.
- Within about 10-12 feet, butterfly eyesight is quite good, so move carefully. 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.
- 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. Sometimes you have to look very closely to spot a camouflaged butterfly or moth.
Plant nectar rich flowers and host plants 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 many pollinators. Tithonia, or Mexican Sunflower, Zinnias, and Lilies are my all-time favorites for butterfly attraction and watching.