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How Can I Attract Butterflies? (With Pictures)

Updated on January 9, 2015
JoyLevine profile image

JoyLevine is passionate for science, math, nature, & all things wild/outdoors. It influences her writing, artistry, photography & video.

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Dryas Iulia, more commonly known as the "Julia Heliconian".  It's also known as the Flame or Flambeau.  It's not hard to see why. Also, this is a male. Note the pheromone patches on the wings.Monarch on MilkweedMonarchMonarch femaleMonarch feeding on Milkweed (host plant)
Dryas Iulia, more commonly known as the "Julia Heliconian".  It's also known as the Flame or Flambeau.  It's not hard to see why. Also, this is a male. Note the pheromone patches on the wings.
Dryas Iulia, more commonly known as the "Julia Heliconian". It's also known as the Flame or Flambeau. It's not hard to see why. Also, this is a male. Note the pheromone patches on the wings.
Monarch on Milkweed
Monarch on Milkweed
Monarch female
Monarch female
Monarch feeding on Milkweed (host plant)
Monarch feeding on Milkweed (host plant)

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Fairies of the Flowers

Butterflies have captured people's imagination for centuries. They have fascinated us and delighted us from the beginning of time. They are so fragile and delicate and their vivid colors makes them one of the most beautifully adorned creatures on Earth.

They are an amazing little creature and probably the most popular insect with people around the world. What is it about butterflies that makes us marvel so?

Come, let's take a look at this fanciful creature and we will find out some interesting facts along the way. We will learn things such as, what do butterflies eat? How long do butterflies live? What flowers should I plant to attract butterflies? What host plants attract butterflies?

Let's dive into the fascinating world of butterflies.

Tiger Swallowtail on a tiger lilly
Tiger Swallowtail on a tiger lilly

What is Mimicry?

Mimicry is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a "superficial resemblance of one organism to another or to natural objects among which it lives that secures it a selective advantage (as protection from predation)".

Mimicry helps an animal at times to either hide from predators or trick predators into thinking it is something else. For example, the Queen Butterfly mimics the coloring of a Monarch, which most animals find bitter, distasteful and possibly sickening because the Monarch feeds on a host plant, the common Milkweed, which is toxic. Usually, if an animal eats a monarch once, they won't repeat the same mistake twice.

What is a butterfly?

A butterfly is an insect. It has six legs and is mostlly diurnal (active during daylight hours). Butterflies have a life cycle consisting of four parts: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult (butterfly). They have a distinctive fluttering style to their flight.

They belong to a family called Lepidoptera, which includes butterflies and moths.
While most butterflies live just a few short weeks, some butterflies live longer and actually migrate thousands of miles.

Some butterflies display mimicry (see blue box at right). Other species may have different phase coloring within the same species, while others display bright warning colors because of toxicity.

All butterflies have host plants and nectar plants. What this means is that butterflies may feed off of many different plants, but they usually have only one or just a few host plants where they will actually lay their eggs and the larva will develop, feeding solely on this host plant. These host plants and nectar plants vary with each individual species of butterfly.

Variegated Fritillary butterfly
Variegated Fritillary butterfly
Zenobia moth
Zenobia moth | Source

What are the differences between moths and butterflies?

This is a common question. What are the differences between moths and butterflies?

Moths are mostly nocturnal (active at night) and butterflies are mostly diurnal (active during the day. Butterflies all have simple antennae (except for one tropical butterfly species) with club like swelling at the end. They can be subtle or more pronounced depending on the species. Moths can have simple antennae or they can have feathery antennae, but they do not have this club like swelling at the end. Moths usually have more hair on their bodies, while butterflies look more bare. Although some moths are brightly colored, most are dull and drab in coloring so that they camouflage in their surroundings at night or in the evening hours. Moths also tend to have bulkier bodies.

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Monarch egg on MilkweedDryas Iulia commonly known as the Julia (Heliconia) caterpillarMonarch caterpillarMonarch caterpillar two days after emergingMonarch caterpillar about a week oldMonarch caterpillar with water dropletsJulia caterpillar on Passion Flower Vine
Monarch egg on Milkweed
Monarch egg on Milkweed
Dryas Iulia commonly known as the Julia (Heliconia) caterpillar
Dryas Iulia commonly known as the Julia (Heliconia) caterpillar
Monarch caterpillar
Monarch caterpillar
Monarch caterpillar two days after emerging
Monarch caterpillar two days after emerging
Monarch caterpillar about a week old
Monarch caterpillar about a week old
Monarch caterpillar with water droplets
Monarch caterpillar with water droplets
Julia caterpillar on Passion Flower Vine
Julia caterpillar on Passion Flower Vine

Life Cycle of a Butterfly

The butterfly goes through four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult.

Eggs are laid on a host plant's leaves. Eggs vary greatly in shape and size depending on species. However, they have several things in common. Most commonly, eggs are laid on the underside of a host plant's leaves. Sometimes they are laid one at a time. Other times they are laid in groups.

All eggs have a hard outer shell called a chorion. Eggs are fixed to a leaf with a special glue that hardens fast. The egg stage usually lasts a few weeks.

When the egg hatches out, the larva, or caterpillar emerges and makes a first meal out of the eggshell it emerged from. In nature, nothing goes to waste.

The larva is usually ravenous and will spend every minute devouring the plant it is on.When it emerges, the caterpillar can be so tiny it is hardly visible. However, because of how it eats, the growth a larva can be phenomenal and it develops in just a few weeks.

As it goes, it sheds its outer skin several times. They also have three pairs of true legs and can have up to six pairs of false legs that come out of the abdominal segments. The tiny hooks on these legs are called crochets and help in locomotion by gripping.

Caterpillars have a few defenses against predators. Some use mimicry, as discussed above, having the ability to inflate parts of their heads to look like snakes. This feature is enhanced by the fact that many of these also have large eye spots that play this up. Some also have the ability to release foul smelling chemicals that deter a would be predator.

The caterpillar will ingest often toxic substances from the plants it eats and it is able to retain these toxins in its body through the adult stage, making them taste bitter to birds and other predators. These butterflies usually have the brightest colors, warning predators of the danger.

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Monarch caterpillarMonarch caterpillar beginning to pupateChrysalis (monarch) about ten minutes oldMonarch chrysalis a few hours oldChrysalis a day before emergingMonarch suspended from chrysalis
Monarch caterpillar
Monarch caterpillar
Monarch caterpillar beginning to pupate
Monarch caterpillar beginning to pupate
Chrysalis (monarch) about ten minutes old
Chrysalis (monarch) about ten minutes old
Monarch chrysalis a few hours old
Monarch chrysalis a few hours old
Chrysalis a day before emerging
Chrysalis a day before emerging
Monarch suspended from chrysalis
Monarch suspended from chrysalis

Pupa Stage

When the caterpillar reaches full size, a special hormone is released and the caterpillar will cease eating and start searching for a place to pupate. The caterpillar pupates by adhering to some form of substrate (usually the underside of a leaf or other structure). It is capable for wandering 30 feet or more in search of a suitable place.

It will first produce silk and then insert its its hind feet into this and hang from its hind feet. At this point, it will begin to curl into position and will molt for the last time. As it molts, it loses the ability to move and transforms into a pupa or chrysalis, which will harden in a few hours.

The chrysalis stage usually lasts seven to nine days, approximately. The last day or two before a butterfly hatches out, you can usually see the chrysalis darken, and the wing color starting to appear through the shell.

When the butterfly breaks out of the chrysalis, he must unfold his wings and inflate them with hemolymph, a special fluid that is produced within the body of the butterfly. This is why on emergence, a butterfly may seem to be 'swollen.' They can take up to a few hours to inflate their wings and let them dry. This is a most vulnerable state for they have no ability to escape predators during this process. Sometimes, they will leak extra fluid and the fluid can appear red, brown, orange, white, or in some cases even blue.

See one of the most intricate and beautiful videos of a butterfly's metamorphosis here.

Adult Butterfly

The adult butterfly has four wings covered with tiny scales. The scales on a butterfly's wings are what gives it the vivid colors. They have pigmentations (melanins) that produce browns and blacks. However, the it is the tiny microstructure of the scales that produces the vivid colors by refracting and reflecting light off the surface of the scales and scattering light.

Queen (Monarch mimic)
Queen (Monarch mimic)
Pipevine Swallowtail
Pipevine Swallowtail
Common Buckeye
Common Buckeye
Dryas Iulia (Julia)
Dryas Iulia (Julia)

Some Interesting Facts About Butterflies

Did you know...

  • A butterfly caterpillar has simple eyes and can only see the difference between light and dark
  • A butterfly adult has both simple and compound eyes and can see images and ultraviolet rays
  • Both caterpillars and butterflies have tiny hairs all over their bodies called tactile setae and these hairs are are sensory oriented in that this is how the caterpillar or butterfly 'feels' the world around it
  • A butterfly has taste cells in the small mouth parts below the mandibles, but it can also taste through its feet. This comes in handy when a butterfly lands on a flower.
  • A butterfly uses its sense of smell to find nectar and host plants, and also to find mates
  • Caterpillars startle at loud noises
  • Butterflies hear through their wings
  • Some butterflies fly as slow as 5mph while others fly faster around 35mph
  • Butterflies sip nectar through a long proboscis that they keep rolled up when not in use
  • One way to tell the difference between male and female butterflies is that in most species the female lacks the prominent black spots on either wing that are visible when the wings are open. These are pheromone patches that release scent for breeding purposes.

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Butterfly Garden
Butterfly Garden
Butterfly Garden

How Do I Attract Butterflies To My Backyard?

So how do you get these fanciful creatures to your own backyard?

The answer is simpler than you might think. You just need the right plants. That's right. There's nothing complicated about it. Do some research and find out the host plants of the butterflies you want to attract. It is best to have at least three host plants (for different butterflies) and three nectar plants in order to have a good array.

What plants attract butterflies? The first question is, which butterflies do you want to attract?

You can find out nectar plants and host plants for individual species of butterflies here.

In my butterfly garden, I used milkweed, dill, fennel, sage, orange trees, lemon and lime trees, hibiscus, butterfly bush, passion flower vine, and parsley. I had the most success with monarchs and swallowtail. I did have some other long wing species, also, and some julia's.

Always remember to try to be diligent in attracting native butterflies. Invasive species can be very destructive in certain areas, such as has been the case with the cabbage butterfly.

Butterflies are a joy to watch and a sight to behold. We are privileged when they grace us with their presence. They are probably one of the most beautiful creatures on Earth and they certainly go through one of the most fascinating metamorphosis that we know of. Butterflies are simply magical to behold. They are nature's gift and we marvel at the design and beauty.

Let us cherish this gift always.

All Animals Should Be Appreciated

All animals are created equal. This is what my father told me once. The design and beauty of some animals makes it so easy to see and understand, while with others, it may take more work and effort to see the design and benefits.

For instance, most people are not huge fans of snakes and spiders. However, there are reasons that all creatures have a specific purpose and beneficial place in this world.

What are some of those reasons? And what can we do to in order to gain a better appreciation of these misunderstood animals?

The first step is to learn more about these animals. After all, don't we all want to be understood?

To learn more, click here.

(The above poem is dark in some places. This is the text).

Clover on the Lakefront

Lone flower in a sea of grass
Dare I behold thy power
Of such a tiny active force
I am witness to this hour?

Among the weeds, among the thorns
Tugging at your tender throat
Light flows in your rainbow smile,
Chimes a soft hypnotic note.

Butterflies flit and lance it out
Vying for your heart
Surrender to your beguiling trance
If just the slightest part.

The butterfly wings that brush your cheek
A fragrant breeze that sings
A meandering bee's feather kiss
Implications with it brings.

What is the secret to thy charm,
To the subtleties of bliss
That attracts them all so reverently
On wing of lash and kiss?

©2002 FVH


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    • JoyLevine profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from 3rd Rock from the Sun

      Thank you for your lovely comment, sallybea... Yes, butterflies are intriguing. So delicate, they really do capture our attention. I see the zebra heliconians, monarchs, and cloudless sulphurs every day here and the occasional queen and swallowtail.

      I found one of the most beautiful butterflies to be the glass wing butterfly of Mexico, Panama and Colombia. Also, of course, the Blue Morpheus is utterly breathtaking.

      The most unique butterfly I think is the Large Blue Butterfly, which ranges from France to China, and became extinct in the UK in 1979. It is a parasitic butterfly... Yea, that's right! The female lays eggs on a host plant on which the larva will feed for a period of time. Then, it falls off and releases pheromones that make it smell like a particular species of ant larva and the ants will find it, and carry it back to the nest and feed it for the next few wks. The caterpillar has to tread a fine line between mimicking the queen (through acoustical signals) in the presence of workers, so that it is protected and fed above all other ant larva and mimicking a worker while near a present queen, which can influence the workers to bite, starve, and neglect female larva that aids in the transition to workers. The caterpillar will also feed on nearby ant larva. They also employ another way to get inside an ant colony... when they are well fed from a plant they secrete a sweet fluid which the ants will feed on, and then the ants bring the caterpillar back to the nest and continue to feed.

      Once the caterpillar is ready to enter the chrysalis stage, once inside, it will rub its head constantly inside the chrysalis and the sound is similar to sounds the ants make. Otherwise they would attack and eat it.

      Amazing stuff!

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 

      7 years ago from Norfolk

      I love butterflies as I love all the little things in nature. I spend a great deal of time photographing butterflies them during the Summer months so it is lovely for me to see the different varieties you have provided here. I was lucky enough to visit the Aruba Butterfly farm in the Bahamas last year. I saw many butterflies which I have never seen before. We can't compete with some of the glorious subjects I saw there, though I have to say, the butterflies were prolific in the UK this year, Each one has it's own charm and provided us with some great photo opportunities. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 

      7 years ago from Germany and Philippines

      Beautiful photos! This is a very useful and informative hub about butterflies. I learned a lot from reading this. Voted this up, interesting and useful. Have a lovely weekend!

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 

      7 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      This is an excellent hub on a very amazing little insect. Not only is this hub very educational but beautiful as well. I learned a few things I didn't know about butterflies from you. Voting this up, interesting, beautiful and sharing! :)

    • JoyLevine profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from 3rd Rock from the Sun

      I agree, pstraubie48, they are a favorite of mine, too. They surely mesmerize. Thank you for your kind comment.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      7 years ago from North Central Florida

      Thank you for sharing these lovely pictures with us. These are among my favorite of the natural inhabitants that I find outside. Every time I see one I feel the same excitement. I have just planted more butterfly friendly plants in my yard.

      Angels are on the way this morning.


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