Thursday, June 16, 2011

Time For a Butterfly Banquet

It's that time of the year again: the birds are singing, the flowers are blooming, and lovely butterflies are gracing our gardens. We had a bit of a rough start this season here in northern Kentucky. Our spring was cold and excessively soggy, with tornado-spawning storms for many weeks. As a result our plants are late bloomers and the flowering trees took a beating. The hummingbirds and butterflies are also later arrivals this year than usual, and their sources of nectar right now are limited. We've hung out our sugar-water feeders for the hummers, and we get pretty creative when it comes to feeding our butterflies. Butterflies are on a liquid diet, since they don't have chewing mouthparts, only a hollow strawlike tongue to slurp up their food. We provide as many native flowering plants for them as we can, starting with our lawns. We take a natural approach to our lawns by allowing companion plants such as violets, white clover, and dandelions to grow in with our grass. Dandelions are an important source of nectar for butterflies and honeybees early in the spring when little else is blooming.

Zebra Swallowtail butterfly feeding on dandelion

We grow many different kinds of flowers that are rich in nectar to entice the butterflies to fuel up in our gardens. One of our favorites is tall verbena (V. bonariensis), which is a native of South America. Normally, we try to stick with plants native to our area, since these would be the natural food sources for our native butterflies, but this flower blooms so well all season and attracts so many butterflies that we make an exception in this case.

Tiger Swallowtail on Verbena bonariensis

We also like to set out fruit feeders for our butterflies. We use either a hummingbird feeder minus the lid or a saucer set up on a post to offer mushy fruit for their dining pleasure. We've had the most success with squishy bananas, apples, oranges, watermelon, cantaloupe, and kiwi. The more liquid content the better. Some butterflies actually prefer to get their nutrition from such things as fruit and tree sap rather than from flowers.

Question Mark butterfly eating old fruit

Black Swallowtail eating watermelon

Our favorite way to increase our local butterfly population is to hand-raise them indoors. We search our gardens each day for butterfly eggs and bring them into what we call our protective custody program. Eggs and caterpillars left out on their own are at the bottom of the food chain. Once the eggs hatch, we feed the caterpillars leaves from their host plant (each species eats a different plant). They eat for a week or two, then enter their chrysalis stage. About 10 days later the adult butterflies emerge, and we set them free in our gardens. Right now we are raising Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies.

Native spicebush

Spicebush Swallowtail egg

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars

Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly

Our gardens are a bug lover's delight. Along with the butterflies, we also nurture lightning bugs, ladybugs, lacewings, katydids, giant silk moths, and many other interesting insects. Our yards are living science projects with infinite opportunities for education and exploration!


Cecropia moth caterpillar

Lightning bug

Judy Burris and Wayne Richards

Sister and brother Judy Burris and Wayne Richards are coauthors of The Secret Lives of Backyard Bugs and The Life Cycles of Butterflies, winner of Learning Magazine’s 2007 Teacher’s Choice Award for “Children’s Books” and “Product of Excellence for the Family.” Their articles and photography, as well as many stories written about them, have been published in Butterfly Gardener, Birds and Blooms, the Cincinnati Enquirer, Better Homes and Gardens, Cincinnati, and Backyard Living.


Melanie Jolicoeur said...

I'll definitely be sharing the organic watermelon that's sitting in my fridge with all of the butterflies who have been visiting my gardens lately, thanks for the tip!

Anonymous said...

I remember as a kid finding a cecropia moth caterpillar in my backyard. It looked like some remnant from the Jurassic all decked out in those multicolored spines.

branduin said...

Do you have any information posted about raising Spicebush Swallowtails indoors? I raise Monarchs but never any other types of butterflies yet but I have had 2 small Spicebush caterpillars indoors for about 10 days. I can't find any information online (yet at least) about how long they are caterpillars before they make their chrysalis and I am finding conflicting information about if they overwinter or not in their chrysalis. Any information would be very helpful since I am kind of raising these a bit blind! I don't want to do anything wrong with them!

Judy Burris said...

The process for raising Spicebush swallowtails or any of our other native swallowtails is pretty simple. They need fresh host plant leaves every day (in this case spicebush) and a clean, dry container. The caterpillars will eat for 10 - 20 days before entering their chrysalis stage. Since we are entering the autumn season, you want to make sure that the caterpillars are not exposed to light past sundown. The shorter days are what triggers the caterpillar to remain in its chrysalis all winter in a state of hibernation. If they see too much light right now they will emerge from their chrysalis this year and risk running out of time to finish their next generation's life cycle before the first frost. If all goes well, each chrysalis will hibernate and will need to be kept in an unheated area through the winter.