Butterflies exhibit one of nature's most astounding
phenomena--complete metamorphosis. With its four-stage growth process, the insect changes its physiological makeup: transforming from a lumbering, leaf-chewing machine into a feathery flyer on a liquid diet. Butterflies are terrestrial insects that make up the order Lepidoptera.
The body temperature of a butterfly is subject to ambient temperatures; A butterfly will wait for the sun to warm its wings and body before taking to the air; its flight "season" generally occurs in warm, sunny months. If it's too hot, cloudy, or wet, butterflies will seek the protective cover of plants, rocky crevices, and downed tree limbs. Flower nectar is its primary source of food, but butterflies also drink sap and liquid from rotting fruit, and from mud, which provides needed minerals. When it comes time to place their eggs, each species seeks out specific plants on which the hatching larva will feed.
More than 700 butterfly species occur in the United States, where they are enjoyed by a growing number of butterfly watchers.
Why are butterflies important to birds and the environment?
Butterflies, and especially caterpillars, serve as a source of food for birds. Sharp-eyed birds have the uncanny ability to find camouflaged caterpillars; many bird species--including seed-eating
birds--exploit this seasonal resource by feeding caterpillars to their young in the nest. If a caterpillar goes unnoticed and reaches adulthood as a butterfly, it becomes a beneficial pollinator, carrying pollen from one flower to another as it feeds on nectar.
Both birds and butterflies are vulnerable to habitat loss, which limits sources of food and shelter. Fungicides and herbicides present a risk to a caterpillar eating a treated plant; insecticides intended to kill the smallest of soft-bodied insects, such as aphids, will also kill caterpillars. Pesticides applied to flowering plants will result in nectar tainted with toxic substances that can be fatal to butterflies.
Getting Started: What You Can Do
- Plant a butterfly garden or native wildflower meadow that provides resources for each stage of a butterfly's lifecycle: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. A butterfly garden should include locally native plants that provide foraging needs for adults (nectar); host plants for caterpillars, which begin eating almost immediately after hatching (adults lay their eggs on or near plants that will provide food for the caterpillar); and areas of shelter, such as stone walls, and stick or leaf piles, which offer protective sites for resting adults and overwintering larvae.
- Investigate which native plants in your region will attract the greatest variety of butterflies. Consider targeting the needs of butterflies with declining populations. For species information, contact your local Audubon chapter, native plant society, North American Butterfly Association chapter, or other butterfly club.
- Provide a source of water. Sand and pebbles placed in a shallow pan or in a terracotta flowerpot drip tray and filled with water can serve as a puddle for butterflies. Moist, bare spots in a garden or yard will provide a place for butterflies to get the minerals and other nutrients they need from the mud.