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monarch butterfly on an orange flower

The Life of a Butterfly and How to Attract Them to Your Garden.

Aug 14, 2020

Butterflies! You've seen these beautiful creatures flying around and maybe even tried to catch one as a kid, but how much do you really know about them? Unlike honey bees, they're not great pollinators and they don't produce a delicious food for us to eat. None the less, images of butterflies are everywhere - on cards, notebooks, mugs. They add beauty to the world and are a source of food for many animals.

I interviewed Jessica McAtee, a butterfly expert on my podcast, The Buzz About Bees, so we could all learn about these fascinating creatures and how we can turn our yard into a butterfly garden. Listen below or on any app that streams podcast.


The life of a butterfly

Just like bees, butterflies go through four life stages - egg, larvae, pupae, adult insect. When they hatch, their goal is to mate. The male's job is to find the female. Once they have successfully mated, the female butterfly looks for a host plant to lay her eggs on. Each butterfly species has a select few plants suited for her eggs. She cannot lay her eggs on any plant. She will lay anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of eggs. She does not care for her young. She leaves the eggs on the host plant and moves on, often to find more host plants to leave the rest of her eggs on.

These eggs hatch and are called a larvae, or caterpillar. Caterpillars will munch on their host plant and get larger by molting. Once the caterpillar is ready to pupate, it will molt one final time to become a chrysalis and enter its pupation stage. Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar turns into an adult butterfly. 


two monarch butterflies mating

Photo: two Monarchs mating


How butterflies mate 

Butterflies use pheromones to attract a mate. Different species have different mating rituals. However, in order to mate, they will connect and lock abdomens. They will stay connected for anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days. During this connection, the male will transfer his sperm to the female. If you see two butterflies connected, but also flying in the air, this is because something either scared them or caused them to fall from their mating spot. If you see two butterflies together, leave them alone as they are engaged in an intimate process! 


Fun Facts About Butterflies

  • Butterflies cannot sting, but some caterpillars can
  • Caterpillars require their specific host plants to feed off of. They will not eat anything they can find.
  • A female butterfly uses her antennae to locate her host plants. She can smell her host plant from up to a mile away.
  • Caterpillars are neither male nor female. Their gender is developed in the pupae stage while in the chrysalis.
  • As a caterpillar, butterflies have mandibles and eat leaves
  • As an adult butterfly, they are on a liquid-only diet.
  • Butterflies will drink nutrients from all sorts of things including flowers as well as other, not so sweet sources, such as feces and dead animals.
  • Butterflies are not good pollinators. Their primary "contribution" is as food in the caterpillar stage for birds and other animals.
  • Some male butterflies are very aggressive and may fly at you if you get near their territory. However, fluttering their wings at you is the most they can do. They cannot bite or sting. 


How social are butterflies

Butterflies are not social creatures. The few times you will see numerous butterflies together is in the egg and larvae stage, because the female may lay many eggs in one spot. However, this is mostly for security purposes as there is strength in numbers, or at the very least, maybe that bird will eat your siblings instead of you. You will also see butterflies together during mating and migration.


How to help and attract butterflies

The biggest way you can help butterflies is by adding plants to your garden that are host plants for their caterpillars. Don't worry! Butterfly caterpillars won't destroy your garden. They have specific plants they like to eat. They won't go eating all your veggies and flowers.

Planting for butterflies

  1. Figure out which butterflies you want to attract. Search online for butterflies in your area, especially native butterflies, or look in your neighborhood to see what butterflies you see often. You can use apps like google goggles to identify the butterfly if you can take a photo of it.
  2. Look up the butterfly’s host plants.
  3. Go to a local nursery and buy that plant or if its a weed, go looking for the weed in your area.

Another, more fun option, but more work is to go searching for caterpillars in your own area. Bring a magnifying glass and start looking anywhere. Just remember not all caterpillars turn into butterflies, some turn into moths. You can use online searches and identification apps like google goggles to identify the caterpillar or just take it home and see what it turns into when it grows up.

The easiest way to plant for butterflies is to plant milkweed, thistle and other plants that are host plants for common butterflies and hope that a female will find it.


swallowtail butterfly

Photo: Swallowtail butterfly


Common butterflies

There are A TON of different kinds of butterflies. The best thing to do is a simple online search to figure out what's native to your area. Another option is to attract some of the common butterflies you'll find in most of North America. Here are a few:

Monarchs - very common around the world because they feed off of milkweed, a very common weed.

Painted Ladies - most widely spread butterfly on the planet. Some of their host plants include thistle, lupine, and hollyhocks. These are common "weeds" that can often be found in your yard.

Eastern Black Swallowtail - common in U.S. They eat carrot family herbs such as dill and fennel.

Anise Swallowtail - common to the Western U.S. Host plant is dill, fennel and Queen Anne's Lace. 


red admiral butterfly

Photo: Red Admiral Butterfly


Butterflies that Migrate

Some butterflies migrate. In Hawaii there is the endemic Kamehameha butterfly which is a descendent of the Painted Lady. Scientists believe that this butterfly flew to the Hawaiian islands on their own before humans arrived! I'm not sure where they started when they began that trip, but Hawaii is considered the most isolated place in the world because the closest landmass is California which is 2,400 miles away! The reason why this butterfly was able to travel so far is because they are migrators. Painted Ladies migrate at high altitudes and travel thousands of miles from Europe to Africa. 

Monarchs are another species that migrate. They cannot survive the cold winters of northern climates and will travel south for the winter. However, if they are in an area that does not get cold, they will not migrate. Monarchs in Eastern North America migrate to the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. Monarchs in Western North America overwinter in California.

The Red Admiral can be found throughout Britain and Ireland. They migrate thousands of miles from Europe to Africa and back.

For more information about making a pollinator friendly garden, see our other articles, 5 Winter Projects to Attract Pollinators and How to Make a Bee Hotel.

Learn more

Websites - lots of information and videos about butterflies & gardening for butterflies - geek out on butterflies

Monarch Joint Venture - help the monarchs


The best way to learn about butterflies is to find a book about butterflies in your region!

Funny non fiction book about how insects reproduce

Courses about butterflies

Gardening for North American Butterflies

Attracting Monarch Butterflies

A great free course about butterfly gardening 

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