Editor's Note: This is the first article in a three-part series on attracting butterflies.
Click here for Part II.
Click here for Part III.
People love to watch butterflies. Yet few people plan their gardens with these creatures in mind. It's easy enough to do, and butterfly gardens often require less maintenance than traditional landscapes. The first step to success in attracting butterflies is understanding their life cycle.
All butterflies start life as eggs placed on specific plants by their mothers, and these eggs, of course, hatch into caterpillars. Like many young animals, caterpillars have only one job -- to grow as efficiently as possible. They're not equipped for dispersal or reproduction; those jobs are left to the winged adult stage.
Most caterpillars are specialized for feeding on one or a few related plant types. Female butterflies can detect these species and will lay eggs only on plants that can nourish their offspring. In addition, female butterflies distribute their eggs on several individual plants of the appropriate type, which lessens the chances that all the caterpillars will run out of food or fall victim to predators or parasites.
Caterpillars feed almost constantly, pausing only to shed their skins. This molting occurs five or six times until the full-sized caterpillar finally crawls off of its host plant, finds a sheltered location, and sheds its skin one more time. The new skin is a camouflaged case called a chrysalis, within which the tissues of the caterpillar are liquefied and rearranged to form a butterfly. Depending on the species and the season, the chrysalis stage may last a few weeks or as much as six months.
The lives of adult butterflies are completely unlike the lives of caterpillars. Adult males spend their time looking for females with which to mate. When a male finds a place with lots of attractive nectar-producing flowers, it will linger there and wait for females to come and drink. The male will patrol the area, engage other males in aerial combat, and bask on prominent lookout perches. An adult female, meanwhile, drinks nectar, mates, and searches for plants on which to lay eggs.
The key to butterfly gardening, then, is providing the right combination of physical elements in your yard: food plants, nectar plants, shelter for chrysalises, and water. Upcoming Nature Watch articles will cover these topics in detail and offer a regional guide to butterflies and the plants that attract them.