10 Tips for Attracting Butterflies to Your Backyard

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1. Choose a sunny site.

Basking on a sunny rock.
Basking on a sunny rock. Flickr user rorris (CC Share Alike license)

Butterflies are the ultimate sun worshipers. If you've spent any time observing butterflies at all, you know they spend some of their time basking in the sunshine. Like all insects, butterflies are ectotherms, meaning they can't regulate their body temperatures internally. Instead, they rely on the sun's energy to warm their bodies so they can function. This is especially important on cooler days, because butterflies can't fly when the temperatures dip below about 55° Fahrenheit. You'll see a butterfly perched on a rock or leaf in a sunny spot, with its wings extended, warming up its flight muscles. When you're planning your butterfly habitat, think about providing good basking spots in the sunniest areas of your yard.

In addition, most good nectar plants require partial to full sun. Plant your butterfly garden in an area that gets a solid 6 hours or more of sunshine every day. Pay attention to the seasonal changes, too. The best site for a butterfly garden will get lots of sun from early spring to late fall, not just in the summer months.

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2. Protect your butterflies from the wind.

Provide a windbreak so butterflies don't have to battle the breezes in your backyard habitat.
Provide a windbreak so butterflies don't have to battle the breezes in your backyard habitat. Flickr user Joel Olives (CC license)

If your backyard is subject to breezy conditions, think about how you can provide the butterflies with protection from the wind. If it takes a lot of energy for the butterflies to battle the wind currents in your backyard habitat, the site won't be as beneficial to them for gathering nectar.

Try to site your nectar and host plants where the house, a fence, or a line of trees will buffer the wind. If needed, provide a windbreak by planting taller shrubs or trees to block the prevailing winds from your butterfly garden.

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3. Provide nectar sources from early spring to late fall.

Asters provide nectar for late season migrants like monarchs.
Asters provide nectar for late season migrants like monarchs. Flickr user rzernitsky (CC license)

The key to attracting butterflies is nectar, and lots of it. Butterflies that overwinter as adults need nectar sources early in the season, and fall migrants, like monarchs, need plenty of nectar to fuel their long journeys south. It's easy to provide nectar in the summer, when most flowers are in bloom, but does your backyard offer nectar sources in March, or October?

Try these 12 easy-to-grow nectar plants for butterflies, many of which bloom late in the season. And while butterfly bush does bloom for a long time and attract a lot of butterflies, keep in mind that it's an exotic, invasive plant that should probably be avoided.

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4. Plant a diversity of flowers.

Small, clustered flowers, like this butterfly weed, allow butterflies of all sizes to gather nectar.
Small, clustered flowers, like this butterfly weed, allow butterflies of all sizes to gather nectar. US Fish and Wildlife Service (Public Domain)

Butterflies are diverse creatures, and they require diverse sources of food. Large butterflies, like swallowtails and monarchs, prefer large, flat flowers that give them a good-sized landing area. Smaller butterflies, such as hairstreaks, coppers, and metalmarks, have shorter proboscises. They won't be able to drink from the deep nectaries of large flowers. When choosing flowers for your butterfly garden, try to pick a variety of flower shapes, colors, and sizes to meet the needs of different butterflies. Plants with clusters of smaller flowers (milkweeds, for example) will attract butterflies of all sizes.

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5. Plant flowers in masses.

Plant flowers in masses so nearsighted butterflies can see them.
Plant flowers in masses so nearsighted butterflies can see them. © Debbie Hadley, WILD Jersey

Butterflies are rather nearsighted. Once they get within 10-12 feet of an object, they can see it quite well, but at a distance most things appear blurred. Butterflies are quite good at discriminating colors, and can even see reds (unlike bees, which cannot). What does this mean for your butterfly habitat? To attract the most butterflies, you should plant your nectar plants in masses. Large areas of the same color will be easier for the butterflies to see from a distance, and will encourage them to come in for a closer look.

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6. Provide host plants for caterpillars.

A true butterfly habitat provides host plants for caterpillars.
A true butterfly habitat provides host plants for caterpillars. © Debbie Hadley, WILD Jersey

If it's a true butterfly habitat, your garden will include a number of different host plants for caterpillars. Remember, you need to feed the larvae, too, not just the adult butterflies. And female butterflies will be cruising your garden, looking for places to lay their eggs.

Some species are specialists, requiring host plants from a particular genus or family. Other butterflies aren't as picky, and will deposit eggs on a range of plants. Many caterpillars feed on trees and shrubs, rather than herbaceous plants, so include some woody plants in your habitat. As a bonus, they'll provide shelter for overwintering or roosting butterflies, too. Consult a good list of caterpillar hosts before planting your butterfly habitat.

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7. Make puddles.

Be sure to provide some wet sand for
Be sure to provide some wet sand for "puddling." Butterflies take up water and minerals from mud puddles. Wikimedia Commons/J.M.Garg (CC license)

Butterflies need to drink, but they can't do so from birdbaths or fountains. Instead, they get their water by taking up moisture from mud puddles. Butterflies also get important minerals by drinking their water from puddles. Males pass these nutrients on to females through their sperm.

A complete butterfly habitat will include one or more puddling sites. Sink a dish tub or bucket in the ground, fill it with sand, and make sure to wet the sand down with your garden hose each day. If you use drip irrigation to water your garden beds, this can also provide puddling sites for butterflies.

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8. Keep bird feeders and birdbaths away from your butterfly habitat.

Keep birdbaths and bird feeders away from your butterfly garden.
Keep birdbaths and bird feeders away from your butterfly garden, or you'll make your caterpillars and butterflies easy picking for birds. Flickr user Olibac (CC license)

People who love butterflies often love songbirds, too. While creating a backyard wildlife habitat for both birds and bugs is a great thing to do, you do need to think of the predator-prey relationships in your yard. Remember, birds prey on insects! If you place a birdbath right in the middle of your butterfly garden, you're providing one stop shopping for hungry birds. Consider placing any bird feeders or birdbaths in a separate area of your yard, just so it isn't quite so easy for birds to find the smorgasbord of caterpillars in your garden.

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9. Provide cover for overwintering butterflies and caterpillars.

Overwintering butterflies and caterpillars need shelter from the cold.
Overwintering butterflies and caterpillars need shelter from the cold. Leave some leaf litter in your yard!. Flickr user Iain Cuthbertson (CC Share Alike license)

We tend to think of butterflies as summer insects. Ever wonder where they go in the winter months? Yes, monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico, but most of our butterflies survive the winter by going into a state of diapause, and simply hiding out until warm weather returns.

Butterflies and moths may overwinter in any of their four life stages, depending on the family or genus. Swallowtails usually wait out the winter weather in the pupal stage, tucked away inside a chrysalis in a protected location. Many tiger moths, most notably the Isabella tiger moth which goes by the nickname woolly bear as a caterpillar, overwinter in the larval stage. A number of butterflies – the mourning cloak, the question mark, and the eastern comma among them – survive the cold in the adult stage, by simply tucking themselves under loose bark or hiding inside a tree cavity.

So what does this mean for your butterfly habitat? Think about how you can provide winter shelter for butterflies and moths in different life stages. Hint: don't rake all your leaves! Leave the fall leaf litter in at least part of your yard for hibernating caterpillars. Brush piles and stored firewood also makes excellent shelter for overwintering butterflies.

Oh, and don't bother with those butterfly houses they market for your garden. Butterflies rarely use them, but wasps do.

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10. Don't use pesticides.

Attract beneficial insects, like this ladybug larva, instead of using pesticides.
Don't use pesticides in your butterfly habitat. Try attracting beneficial insects, like this ladybug larva, instead. © Debbie Hadley, WILD Jersey

This one should be obvious, right? If you're trying to support insect life in your backyard, you don't want to use chemicals or other substances that kill them. Providing habitat is a bit different than gardening for aesthetics. Caterpillars need foliage to feed on, so you'll have to be tolerant of leaves with holes, or even plants that have been defoliated in some cases. Some caterpillars will even feed on the plants you intended to eat yourself, like dill or fennel (which are the host plants for black swallowtail larvae). Learn to share. Plant some extra so there's enough for you and the caterpillars.

If you garden pests reach the point where you absolutely must intervene, try the least toxic methods of control first. Learn ways to attract beneficial insects to your garden, and let the predators take care of the pests.

For help battling specific garden pests organically, try reading my tips for controlling the 12 worst vegetable garden pests.

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