Landscapes can be attractive both to butterflies, and visually to us. Most are aware of some of the design ideas for aesthetic landscapes. But what are some of the habitat considerations you'll need to attract butterflies? The most important are outlined in ANR-1290 “Butterfly Gardens” from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
As with many forms of wildlife, you should provide food, water, and cover, preferably near each other. Butterflies also are most abundant in areas of full sun, protection from the wind, and no insecticides.
Most are familiar with the life cycle of butterflies, having as a child collected a caterpillar and watched it change into a butterfly. These stages are egg, larva or caterpillar, chrysalis or pupa (which is the stage that metamorphoses), and the adult or the butterfly.
Food for the caterpillars, which are also the host plants where the adults lay their eggs, will vary with butterfly species. Many butterflies have a range of host plants, others more specific preferences. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweeds. Black swallowtail larvae eat leaves of dill, parsley, carrot, and fennel. Painted lady caterpillars eat thistle leaves.
Food for the butterflies is primarily flower nectar. Make sure you have a full succession of blooms providing such nectar through the season, or the butterflies will look elsewhere.
Water for butterflies should be provided in the form of a puddle in a sunny area, preferably near the butterfly garden. Containers could be a small trench in the soil lined with plastic, a plastic pail buried in the ground, or a dish or platter. Fill the container with sand. Place a few rocks and twigs on the sand to provide landing sites within reach of the water. Then fill the container with water to the level of the sand. Such puddles are those sought by butterflies, not birdbaths, ponds, or large water features.
Overwintering butterflies need cover. This may already be present in the habitat or nearby. Since species may overwinter in any of the four stages, a variety of cover is needed.
Butterflies overwintering in the adult stage may use the peeling bark on trees, perennial plants, and old logs or fences. Old sheds, barns, or houses also provide overwintering sites. Similar sites are used by overwintering pupae. Butterfly hibernation boxes are seldom used by them, but more frequently by wasp colonies.
Butterflies overwintering as caterpillars or eggs use herbaceous perennials, shrubs, and trees. Leave the leaf litter and dead plant parts of perennials in the garden until spring to provide cover for them from predators such as birds. Of course keep your bird feeders and bird baths away from the butterfly garden!
Provide gardens in full sun areas. Butterflies warm up to fly and be active. The air temperature must be at least 40 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Place perches for sunning in, or near, the garden where butterflies can land and spread their wings. These include flat stones, wooden fence posts, and areas of mulch.
Plant nectar sources in sites protected from wind. This helps butterflies fly and forage in the garden with less effort. You could plant windbreaks of trees and shrubs that would provide cover and perhaps even food. Houses, garages, wood fences, and stone walls also serve as windbreaks.
Finally, use non-chemical methods of pest management in your gardens and yard. At some stage of their life cycle, all butterflies are susceptible to chemicals, even some of the least toxic ones such as Bt products. Some of the feeding damage on leaves is probably caused by caterpillars, which you need to tolerate in order to later have butterflies! Usually such feeding is minor, and doesn't pose a significant nor long term threat to your plants. Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor, University of Vermont was used as a resource for this article.