Why to Plant a Butterfly Garden (& How)
Much like a pollinator garden, a butterfly garden is a great way to attract and provide for these beautiful insects. There’s a little more to it than planting a few colorful flowers though. Here’s how we can help save the butterflies and have a better yard while we’re at it.
Why Do We Need Butterflies?
Many know how important pollinators are for our food supply and ecosystem. Yet butterflies don’t always get the attention they deserve. Butterfly expert Mike Malloy lays out why butterflies are so important.
Butterflies are at the bottom of the food chain for many birds and some small animals, like mice. When the butterfly population dips, everything else takes a hit too. Almost 66% of invertebrate species can be traced back to the butterfly on the food chain.
This insect is more than just bird food though. Entomologists at the University of Kentucky also point out butterflies play a critical role in natural pest control. Butterflies eat plant-damaging aphids.
Stronger, Better Plants
Like bees, butterflies are an important pollinator, but in a different way. While bees spread the love locally, butterflies carry pollen over a much farther distance. Butterflies can evenly cover large areas of plants in a single go.
They’re also an important part of helping plants be genetically diverse. This delicate insect shares pollen across different groups of plants over a wide area – sometimes miles apart. Plants then become more resistant to disease and stronger. Companion planting is another way to give plants a helping hand.
The Butterfly Effect
There’s a reason why butterflies are one of the most monitored animals in the world. Ever heard the phrase “canary in the coal mine”? Butterflies are the canary to our ecosystem. When an area lacks butterflies, scientists know there’s something wrong.
Birds even plan their breeding season around when caterpillars will be available for food. Not enough caterpillars, not enough bird food. It has a ripple effect on our entire ecosystem and food chain.
A Dangerous Trend
According to the Smithsonian Institute, there are about 17,500 different species of butterflies. The United States houses around 750 of these species. While that may sound like a lot, more of our butterfly friends are dying every year.
Various butterfly species declined from 35-67% over a nine-year period in the UK. On the upside, some butterfly species started to make a comeback in 2019, according to The UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme.
Monarch butterflies overwinter in Mexico and California. Scientists estimate there were at least 4.5 million monarch butterflies in California alone in the 1980s. At last count, the population has declined to less than 29,000. That’s .5% of what they used to be.
The Center for Biological Diversity reports on the butterfly decline in Mexico. From 2019 to 2020 Mexico lost 53% of its remaining monarch butterfly population. The Xerces Society for conservation highlights the loss in the US. California lost 86% of its monarch butterfly population from 2017 to 2018 alone.
At this rate, scientists say the species will be extinct within 20 years.
What’s Killing the Butterflies?
There are several reasons why our important pollinators are dying out. According to EPA pesticide usage reports:
- More than half of insecticides in the US are sprayed in yards and gardens.
- The US accounts for 23% of the world’s total pesticide use.
- 83 million US households use insecticides. This doesn’t include other pesticides used.
All of these pesticides spell major trouble for the butterfly population.
Neonicotinoid pesticides may be especially harmful. Researchers found that as neonicotinoid use rose, so did butterfly deaths. The Guardian reports:
“If we’re going to get smart about using chemicals in the countryside we need to test them better before they get out there. It’s crazy that we’re using a potentially dangerous-to-wildlife chemical and nobody has done those studies.”
A Boring Landscape
Along with pesticide use comes a decrease in plant diversity. When people spray unwanted “weeds,” like beneficial dandelions, it has a domino effect. Milkweed is the monarch butterflies main food source, but thanks to pesticides the number of plants has plummeted.
Green lawns empty of nutritious and diverse plant life. Roadsides and fields that are sprayed and mowed. Fields full of bare ground and pesticide-resistant corn or soybeans. All of these scenarios rob our important pollinators of the food they need and ultimately damages the ecosystem we depend on.
5G and EMF Effects on Butterflies?
5G has gotten a lot of buzz lately, and not all for positive reasons. A 2010 study in the journal Nature explores its possible effects on insects and animals. How? Butterflies have photoreceptor proteins called cryptochromes. These allow butterflies to see UV light rays invisible to humans. The proteins also help the butterflies (and other animals) sense the earth’s geomagnetic field. There’s growing evidence that EMF waves may throw off the sense of direction for birds and insects.
Changing the Food Supply
Not only are EMF waves confusing butterflies’ sense of direction, but they could be damaging their food source. Newsweek reports scientists have also found nearly 90% of plant life tested was sensitive to cell phone frequencies. EMF waves have a negative impact on how plants develop, function, and metabolize.
How to Create a Butterfly Garden
Instead of feeling overwhelmed and depressed by this information, we can take action! A butterfly garden is a perfect way to create a haven for our pollinator friends. Unlike bees, butterflies are a little pickier about what they like.
#1 Be a Groupie
Butterflies prefer large blocks of colorful flowers of the same variety. Instead of planting ten different flowers in the same small area, opt for a larger patch of one kind. This doesn’t mean your butterfly garden can only have one or two varieties, but instead group like flowers together.
#2 Plant a Rainbow
Like bees, butterflies like a variety of colors. Red, orange, yellow, pink, and purple blooms are their favorite. Butterflies also tend to prefer flowers with short flower tubes and wide landing surfaces, like daisies and black-eyed susan. Blooms with large clusters, like phlox, are also a favorite.
#3 Take It to Greater Heights
Butterflies want a variety of heights to choose from. Taller flowers and shrubs help provide protective shade for them. Trees and shrubs are important for butterflies to perch and feed on. These plants provide for them from caterpillar through adulthood.
#4 Spread the Love
Like us, butterflies need to eat throughout the seasons, not just summer. By planting a variety of flowers with different bloom times we can help them eat all season long. Some butterflies hibernate in the winter, while others migrate to a warmer climate and feed there.
#5 Put Off Raking the Leaves
While many want a leafless lawn in the fall, leaves provide shelter through the winter for insects and birds. According to Purdue University’s Forest and Natural Resources, annual and perennial plants can contain butterfly pupa and larva. In many areas, butterflies overwinter in fallen leaves and vegetation.
According to scientists at the University of Michigan, fallen leaves have other benefits. Mulched leaves fertilize and add nutrition to the soil. Grass is noticeably thicker, greener, and healthier in the spring. By raking leaves and pulling up plants in the fall we’re disturbing a vital part of the ecosystem.
Late spring is a much safer time to clean up the yard and garden.
#6 Don’t Forget About the Babies!
Butterflies lay eggs that become caterpillars, and later on more butterflies. A good butterfly garden will also have food and shelter for the reproductive cycle. You can do both you and the caterpillars a favor by creating their own space for them away from your vegetables.
What to Plant in a Butterfly Garden
Ready to get started? Here’s a master list of butterfly-friendly varieties to look for:
Best Veggies for Butterflies
- Garlic chives
Best Trees for a Butterfly Garden
- Gumbo-Limbo tree
- Pawpaw tree (and the fruits are edible and delicious!)
- Tulip poplar tree
- Wild black cherry tree
- Chokecherry tree
- Northern prickly ash
Butterfly-Friendly Shrubs and Vines
- Butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.)
- Buddleia davidii ‘Miss Molly’
- Mexican flame vine (the only vine that attracts monarchs)
Best Plants and Flowers for Butterflies
- Mint – spearmint, peppermint, etc.
- Bluemist spirea
- Milkweed (vital for monarch caterpillars)
- Purple coneflower (echinacea)
- Globe amaranth
- Mexican sunflower
- Black-eyed susan
- Coral bean
- Coral honeysuckle
- Firecracker plant
- Lion’s Ear
- Passion Flower
- Blue porterweed
- Bee balm (also known as wild bergamot)
- Blue mistflower
- Duranta erecta (sapphire showers or golden dewdrops)
- Echium fastuosum (pride of Madeira)
- Blazingstar varieties (a favorite of monarchs) – rough, button, meadow, and northern are some of the varieties.
- Purpletop vervain
- Egyptian starcluster
- Purple giant hyssop (not anise hyssop)
More Butterfly Garden Necessities
Still looking to add on? Try:
Some butterfly species eat rotting fruit. Instead of tossing out overripe fruit leftovers, place fruit slices in a shallow dish for the butterflies. These should be set next to a flowering plant they like.
Butterflies also enjoy taking a dip. While they steer clear of deeper water, like birdbaths, a shallow dish of water is just their thing. You can fill a saucer with wet sand and water by their favorite flowers. If your area is prone to mosquitos be sure to dump and change the water regularly.
What About a Butterfly House?
A butterfly house may look like a friendly gesture, but they’re not necessary. These are more for decoration and butterflies don’t use them. It’s more likely to end up as a spider hotel. Try building a bee hotel instead.
Let’s Save the Butterflies
Even though the statistics are shockingly bad, we can all play a part in saving the butterflies. Planting a butterfly garden, skipping the pesticides, and encouraging diverse plant life can make an impact. The more of us who pitch in, the better!
Do you have a butterfly garden? What’s in it?
- Purdue University Forestry and Natural Resources (2004, May). Attracting Butterflies to Your Yard. https://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/FNR/FNR-248-W.pdf
- The UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS). (2019). 2019 Summary of Changes table for the UK. https://www.ukbms.org/official_statistics
- Cornell University Cooperative Extension Fulton and Montgomery Counties (2013, April 11). Consumer Horticulture: Plan a Butterfly Garden. https://ccefm.com/readarticle.asp?ID=1577&progID=8
- Dovey, D (2018, May 19). Radiation for Cell Phones, Wi-Fi is hurting the birds and the bees; 5G may make it worse. Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/migratory-birds-bee-navigation-5g-technology-electromagnetic-radiation-934830
- US EPA (2017). Pesticides Industry Sales and Usage 2008 – 2012 Market Estimates. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-01/documents/pesticides-industry-sales-usage-2016_0.pdf
- Schultza, C., Brown, L., Pelton, E., & Crone, E. (2017). Citizen science monitoring demonstrates dramatic declines of monarch butterflies in western North America. Biological Conservation. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320717304809
- Curry, T. (2020, March 20). Eastern monarch butterfly population plunges below extinction threshold. Center for Biological Diversity. https://phys.org/news/2020-03-eastern-monarch-butterfly-population-plunges.html
- Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. (2018, Nov 29). Early Thanksgiving Counts Show a Critically Low Monarch Population in California. https://xerces.org/blog/early-thanksgiving-counts-show-critically-low-monarch-population-in-california
- UK College of Agriculture Food and Environment. Aphids. Entomology at the University of Kentucky. https://entomology.ca.uky.edu/ef103)
- Hartley Botanic (2016, March 2). Why Butterflies are Important. https://hartley-botanic.co.uk/magazine/why-butterflies-are-important/
- Gegear, Robert J. et al. (2010). Animal Cryptochromes Mediate Magnetoreception by an Unconventional Photochemical Mechanism. Nature, 463(7282), 804. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature08719
- Purdue University Department of Forestry and Natural Resources (2004). Attracting Butterflies to Your Yard. https://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/FNR/FNR-248-W.pdf
- Johnson, T. (n.d.). Out My Backdoor: Do Butterfly Boxes Work? Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division. https://georgiawildlife.com/out-my-backdoor-do-butterfly-boxes-work