Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Judy Burris: Planting a Butterfly Garden

An adult Eastern Black Swallowtail at rest. Photo from The Life Cycles of Butterflies

The days are warm, the flowers are blooming, and butterfly season is in full swing. The most common question people ask us is "How can I get more butterflies to come to my garden?" The simple answer is plant and provide what they need. Butterflies need food and a place for their kids to grow up.

Butterflies have a four-stage life cycle: the development of an egg, a caterpillar (larva), a chrysalis (pupa), and an adult. The plants needed by butterflies are called nectar and host plants. Gardens that are filled with blooming flowers rich in nectar will attract hungry butterflies because they are on a liquid diet and their tongues are hollow tubes designed to sip nectar. Think of it this way . . . gardens full of nectar plants are like gas stations where butterflies stop to fuel up as they travel around looking for a mate or a place to lay their eggs. In order to witness the entire life cycle, gardeners must include host plants in their yards to entice the female butterflies to lay their eggs. Each species of butterfly requires specific plants. Once the eggs hatch, the caterpillars are little eating machines, but they are picky — they would rather starve to death than eat anything other than their host plants.

So far this year we have found Black Swallowtail eggs on our fennel plants, Pipevine Swallowtail eggs on our Dutchman's pipevines, Zebra Swallowtail eggs on our pawpaw trees, and Tiger Swallowtail eggs on our sweet bay magnolia, to name a few. Every year we try to attract and hand-raise at least one species of butterfly that is different from the ones we have already photographed. This year our first new one is the Mourning Cloak butterfly. We post our new life-cycle photos on our Web site at www.ButterflyNature.com.

Mourning Cloaks are not as fond of flower nectar as other butterflies. They prefer tree sap and rotting fruit. We attract them to our garden by hanging a small dish of mushy fruit from a shepherd's hook in a shady spot in our yard. We use a saucer-type hummingbird feeder minus the lid. Mourning Cloaks love old bananas and apples all squished up and mixed with some maple syrup.

Other butterflies that are attracted to this sweet 'n' sticky goop include Tawny Emperors, Hackberry Emperors, Viceroys, Red-Spotted Purples, and the occasional Monarch if you add some overly ripe watermelon to the mix. If you don't happen to have any old fruit on hand, just put an apple in the microwave for a minute or so to soften it. But wait until it has cooled completely before setting it out for the butterflies.

Kids love to experiment with different kinds of fruity goo to see what kinds of butterflies will come to the banquet. Moths are also attracted to this sweet bait, including the clearwing hummingbird moths that fly during the daytime. After dark it's fun to grab a flashlight and see what kinds of night-flying moths are visiting the fruit tray.

Brother-sister team
Wayne Richards and Judy Burris are the authors of
The Life Cycle of Butterflies and have been intrigued with butterflies since they were children. They have spent many years observing, raising, and photographing these miraculous creatures. Judy and Wayne live and study native butterflies in Kentucky

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