Project Nature Blog

The Magic of Butterflies

Butterflies are magical. They have amazing color, seem to float effortlessly, visit so briefly and are scarce and fragile. From your child’s first exposure to The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, to their first live butterfly sighting, they likely have been enchanted with metamorphosis and the acrobatics of butterflies.

The Tropical Butterfly Garden at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle is a great place to view many species of butterflies, rain or shine. Washington also has regional demonstration gardens that you can visit for ideas about plants that attract butterflies and to see some butterflies flitting about.

To support your child’s interest in butterflies, and to get some great nature time, you might consider growing a butterfly garden. You also can buy a live butterfly garden kit to learn about metamorphosis. There are many conservation projects to preserve butterflies and their habitat and there are projects to document the wild butterflies that you see that you can connect to online. Also, you can find region specific guides to identify the butterflies that you see, both in books and online resources with lists of caterpillar and butterfly supporting flowers for each species of butterfly. Additionally a field trip to a lepidopterarium (butterfly house) at zoos that conserve and display butterflies can be amazing.  

If you decide to plant a garden to attract butterflies, as a side benefit, you will likely attract bees and some hummingbirds as well. You can plant during the fall and spring.  Butterflies love the sun, so locate a sunny spot that gets 6 hours of full sun and is sheltered from the wind to plant your flowers, if possible. Butterflies need nectar, full of energy rich sugars to support the energy it takes to fly. Flowers that are brightly colored, and fragrant and have flat flower heads with multiple florets and short tubes to reach the nectar are preferred, as well as native plants that they have evolved with (mock orange, elderberry, spirea, yarrow, aster, yellow alyssum, daisy, coneflower, heliotrope, sweet William, zinnia, garden mint, oregano, thyme, honeysuckle, twinberry, statice, catmint, bee balm, tall verbena). Container plants butterflies love include:   fuchsias, sweet alyssum, garden sage, dianthus, and lavender

Mating can occur anywhere, but reproductively successful females don’t venture great distances from host plants to lay eggs that will turn into very hungry caterpillars. Most adult butterflies lay their eggs on or near host plants to meet the nutritional needs of the caterpillars that hatch. Breeding grounds require larval/caterpillar plants. These plants are sometimes partially or completely consumed so you might want to locate them on a patch of wild growth on a corner of your property (maple, alder, native black hawthorn, bitter cherry, oak, willow, manzanita, rhododendron, oceanspray, red twig dogwood, rockcress, madrone, pine, douglas fir, bleeding heart).

Butterflies also need places to take in water and trace minerals from patches of wet sand or soil

Butterflies warm their blood and flight muscles by basking with their wings open to the sun.  During the morning or cooler days, a few large stones or rocks that hold heat in sunny areas or rocks in a bird bath can help them keep warm serving ask basking sites.

Hibernation sites in the winter are usually in downed branches, wood, thick undergrowth and brush piles.  So,no need to keep your yard too tidy! Also, it is best not to use insecticides, and keep cats indoors when butterflies are out, since cats love to eat butterflies.  

Have a lovely time observing your garden and the creatures that visit!

Here are some butterfly-related links that may be helpful:

By Beth E. Harvey, MD, FAAP