Bringing butterflies home

Milkweed is a particular favorite for butterflies for its nectar, as shown y this tiger swallowtail, and as a host for larvae. Submitted photo

Milkweed is a particular favorite for butterflies for its nectar, as shown y this tiger swallowtail, and as a host for larvae. Submitted photo

By Michelle Brooks

Democrat staff

Their homes depend on us.

Our homes are filled with life when they move in.

Butterflies and moths bring their vibrant colors and dancing flight as they search out food and nurseries.

The problem is many of the delicate, winged insects are genetically tied to specific plants to lay their young. And urban development and farmland have fast-erased their natural habitats.

The fluttering creatures may be out of sight in the urban backyard, but they’re not gone forever.


Butterflies, moths and other insects are critical to the overall wildlife community in one's backyard. Planting flowers for nectar and host plants for laying eggs will help diversify and increase the population. Submitted photo

For the landscaper willing to depart from the post-modern lawn of evergreens and non-flowering plants, a backyard or deck can play host to those flora and fauna here long-before pioneers.

“Thank goodness people think they are pretty, it gives attention,” Cavender said. “But all insects were so important.”

Insects pollinate the flowers they walk on, so more plants will be made to feed the herbivores.

“We may not realize until further up the food chain, what you’re missing,” Cavender said.

The larvae and insects both are food for other wildlife, as are the plants they pollinate. Likewise, those creatures that feed upon these fliers and greens are food for the next level of predator.

“The added benefits are we get to see the beautiful designs of the butterfly, moth and other insects,” Cavender said.

“The modern method of landscaping doesn’t allow for natives,” Wallace said. “They’re wiped out and then they add exotics.”

If more people would plant more trees, shrubs or flowering perennials, integral to the life cycle, there would be more butterflies in the city, Wallace said.

“It’s not just nectar plants that you’ve gotta have,” Wallace said.

The adults are genetically predisposed to seek out specific plants to lay their eggs. From the eggs, the caterpillars will feast on the host plant.

“Bugs eating the plants in your yard is a good thing,” Wallace said. “Because if you want birds in your yard, you need the food chain — it begins with native plants.

“Zero butterflies feed on hosta.”

But 96 percent of birds feed on insects.


Bees may not be as cute as butterflies and moths, but they play a crucial role in the polination of food as well as flowers. News Tribune photo

For conscientious gardeners, adding a few — or several — specific, native plants can help restore the decline of the necessary companions.

“It’s helpful for individuals to plant native plants in their backyard,” Cavender said.

The regal fritillary, another large orange and black butterfly, had been rare in the past, Cavender said. It requires prairie plants and in Missouri, prairies have been reduced by 99 percent.

“They’re doing better now because of management,” she said.

As more backyards return these lost buffets and nurseries, there’s a greater chance of saving the butterflies, Cavender said.

Using the the Missouri state bird as the example, Cavender noted the once prolific Eastern bluebird was rarely seen by the 1970s but now is becoming more common again with the help of backyard nesting boxes.

“It’s imperative people understand you don’t have to have a big space to attract them,” Cavender said. “It’s just as important to have pots on your deck.

“Use what you have.”

Many people already may have natives and butterfly hosts or nectar in their pots or yards without knowing it, Wallace said.

Purple coneflower is a good example, but be wary of commercial cultivars, Wallace said — they may not produce the nectar needed.

And a helpful quality about natives, is they are not a problem to grow, Wallace said.

Many are low-maintenance and can work as ground covers in areas currently covered in mulch.

For those limited to decks, Wallace recommends the nectar sources.

But if a little space of land is available, check the sun exposure, and plant a larvae host plant.

Although property owners may want a tidy looking front yard, Wallace said the backyard could be host to a variety of not-quite-perfect looking natives. The reward would be a greater diversity of wildlife from butterflies and insects to birds.

Oak trees, for example, are host to more than 530 species of moths and butterflies. Unfortunately, most new residential development sites today clear all mature and native trees, Wallace noted.

“We’ve lost a heck of a lot of food for the birds,” he said.


Gardeners looking to draw more butterflies and birds to their backyard should start with host plants where eggs are laid and larvae, like this spicebush caterpillar, will eat and be eaten. Submitted photo

For some butterflies, the plant-insect relationships have become monogamous.

The distinctive monarch butterfly lays its eggs exclusively on the milkweed family. When the larvae feed on this bad-tasting plant, the adult then is avoided by birds.

The viceroy butterfly has the advantage of a similar appearance to the monarch, so it is safe from avian predators, too.

“It’s unbelievable the adaptations they have for survival,” Cavender said.

The swallowtail butterfly seeks out only a spicebush or sassafras, where it lays eggs which mimick bird droppings.

Gardeners may find interesting experiences watching the full life cycle.

“They’re crazy looking things; they look like aliens,” Cavender said. “I’ve come to the point I enjoy the larvae as much as the adults.

“They are fascinating, fun and essential to our survival.”

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