Butterflies - Leser

Two varieties of butterflies.

Jim Leser

Jim Leser.

Few things can rival the beauty of a tiger swallowtail butterfly flitting across your yard. These and other “winged jewels” are a welcome sight to me as an entomologist and once amateur lepidopterist.

In my younger days I used to collect butterflies, moths and even dragonflies. I mounted them on pins, spread their wings and added appropriate labeling. They were then stuck into glass topped drawers that were stored in a special cabinet. I had thousands of specimens. But if the truth be known, the chase of these butterflies was the driver of my collecting passion. These days I like to think of myself as more evolved, more interested in attracting these beautiful creatures than collecting them as a dead, inanimate object on a pin.

A butterfly garden is the way to go if you want more butterfly activity in your landscape. The necessary elements to make a successful butterfly garden include flowers for nectar to feed the adults, food plants for the caterpillars, protection for them from the wind and overwintering sites for some species that overwinter as adults, eggs, or pupae, a water source such as a mud puddle and, finally, an environment that is safe from indiscriminate use of insecticides.

Before starting a butterfly garden, it would be a good idea to determine what butterflies and moths are native to your area and which ones might migrate through. Google is your friend here as well as many other printed references. A good one to start with is “Butterflies of the Rocky Mountains” by Roland Wauer. This is an inexpensive, quick reference that provides photos of adult butterflies and their caterpillars, the season to expect them and larval host plants.

You will need to learn what plants provide the flowers that attract the species you are interested in and what plants these butterflies need to lay their eggs on and feed their developing caterpillars. But don’t worry. Most butterfly caterpillar feeding causes minor damage to your plants. We’re not talking about large hornworms that develop into hawkmoths after causing significant feeding damage to plants like tomatoes. If you are only interested in picture perfect plants, free from any blemish, then perhaps butterfly gardening isn’t for you.

Not all flowers are suitable for providing nectar for adult butterflies. So before starting your garden, it would be prudent to research the plant component of your garden. An important consideration is to find plants that will provide blooms all season long. My suggestion is to plant natives only, avoiding the showy exotics that may be attractive to you but not so much to butterflies. Adults are attracted to many flower colors including, red, pink, purple, yellow and orange. Currently, my garden catmint with purple blooms is a magnet for butterflies. Flat-topped or clustered flowers with shorter floral tubes are what are generally needed. And plant these in groups and in sunlit areas. Butterflies rely on the sun to heat their bodies so they can fly.

If you really want a full service, entertaining butterfly garden then you should consider providing caterpillar host plants. Some butterfly species have a wide host range for their caterpillars while others many feed only on a limited number of plants. Again, Google is your friend for finding which plants will provide for a caterpillar’s needs. While we tend to think of herbaceous plants as caterpillar hosts, trees like oak, cherry, willow and alder are also hosts for many caterpillars. Weidemeyer’s admiral is one summer butterfly that is a welcome sight as I walk the Surface Creek trail in Cedaredge. This good sized mostly black butterfly with broken vertical white bands across its wings feeds as a caterpillar on the abundant willows that grow along the creek.

While butterfly gardening does not require an absolutely insecticide-free environment, you should think twice before using one. Do you really need a “perfect” garden that is free of all insect activity? I think not. Insecticides such as Sevin, malathion, diazinon, and one of the many synthetic pyrethoids kill insects. Period! Even Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) will kill caterpillars. Systemic insecticides such as imidacloprid can kill insects visiting flowers on plants that have been treated prior to bloom.

Providing places for butterflies to rest, sheltered from the wind but in the sun is important. And winter protection of those species that overwinter as adults or as eggs or as pupae (chrysalis) is equally important. The mourning cloak adult is one such butterfly that overwinters as an adult in our area and is one of the earliest butterflies to see in the spring, except for the white cabbage butterfly. Instead of rushing to clean up my garden in the fall, I wait until spring so that I provide winter shelter to not only butterflies but also many other insects and spiders. And don’t forget to provide a water source. A mud puddle will do.

There are many good references available to help you get started in butterfly gardening, including two from the Colorado State University Extension via the internet: PlantTalk Colorado, 1121 — “Butterfly Gardens” and “Attracting Butterflies to the Garden” — 5.504. Also highly recommend is the book “Gardening for Butterflies” written by the Xerces Society, with lots of pictures and good information. And if you are looking for places that carry a lot of native plants and plants that would be great in a butterfly garden, look no further than Chelsea Nursery in Clifton and High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, a mail order source.

And last but not least, by establishing a garden as a safe haven for attracting adult butterflies and growing their caterpillars, you have also created an environment good for other pollinators and beneficial insects such as bees, bumblebees, lady beetles, praying mantises and even spiders.

Jim Leser retired to Cedaredge in 2007 after a career with Texas A&M University Extension in entomology. He is a current member of the Cedaredge Tree Board and has been a Certified Colorado Gardener since 2008.

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