Green County MGA

Green County Master Gardeners Association, Wisconsin

Quiet Visitors – Butterflies

There is much delight in watching butterflies effortlessly float over brightly colored flowers.  Butterflies add color and movement to a garden and by providing plants that supply plenty of nectar you will be able to attract these fragile insects.

Butterflies have knobbed antennae and many have attractively colored or patterned wings.  Their role in nature is to reproduce their species.  Thus when they visit your garden they may be searching for nectar or the females may be searching for a host plant on which to lay eggs.   Some butterflies have only a single generation each year, while others may have more than one.  Butterflies begin to appear when the temperature rises above 60 degrees and can be seen into late fall.

All butterflies exhibit specific behaviors.  Nectaring is the process of sipping nectar through their long, straw like mouthparts that are kept coiled when not in use.  Butterflies taste with their feet and when a sweet liquid is detected their mouthparts uncoil.   Puddling occurs when a number of butterflies gather around a puddle or wet spot to sip water, salts, and minerals to supplement their diet.  Basking, or warming in the sun, is done by stretching their wings to absorb the heat.  Roosting occurs from sunset to midmorning and during rainy, cloudy, or cold weather.  This behavior allows the butterfly a chance to rest by choosing a spot on the underside of a leaf or twig.  Most of our Wisconsin butterflies hibernate in the winter.  Some butterflies, such as the monarch, migrate to a much warmer climate for the winter months.  This butterfly flies to the mountains of Mexico and gradually returns north over the course of a few generations the following spring.

The scent and color of flowers is what attracts butterflies.  Most butterflies will feed on a variety of flowers.  In general, butterflies must land in order to get to the flower nectar, so they prefer plants with either clusters of short tubular flowers or flowers with large, flat petals.  Many butterflies prefer pink, red, purple, yellow, or orange flowers, preferably in areas that have been planted in large masses.  However, butterflies can see ultraviolet light, so the color we see may not be the same as what they perceive.

There is a variety of nectar producing annuals and perennials that are attractive to butterflies.  Some common annuals are alyssum, ageratum, cosmos, sweet william or pinks, salvia, verbena, single marigolds, and zinnia.  Perennials that provide good nectar sources include black-eyed-susan, coreopsis, coneflowers, shasta daisies, and tall garden phlox.  Butterfly bushes and sunflowers also are excellent flowers for attracting butterflies.

Butterflies need sun to warm their bodies for flight.  An area that receives at least 6 hours of direct sunlight as well as being protected from strong winds is the best location for a butterfly garden.   A butterfly is like a floating flower.  You will surely enjoy watching these beautiful creatures in your garden.

Until next time…happy gardening.

Nina Binkley, UW Extension master gardener volunteer