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HOME: Butterfly Index

How to Attract Butterflies, Skippers, and Moths to Your Garden

By Shirley Miller

Don't we all love to see those flying "flowers" fluttering around our yard?

We see beloved Monarchs, Swallowtails, (both yellow and black with blue, yellow and orange colorings), as well as Fritillaries, tiny Skippers.

The answer is YES!

Now, the question is, what can we, as gardeners, do to attract and keep those lovely visions in our yard?

First, we must understand the life cycle of the Butterfly and it’s cousins.

The butterfly life cycle has four stages:

  • 1. Adult;
  • 2. Fertilized Egg;
  • 3. Larval (Caterpillar); and
  • 4. Pupa.

(1). The adult female lays her eggs on a plant that will nurture her young.

(2). Butterfly eggs are very small and the average gardener will probably not notice them.

(3). When the larvae hatch, they are also very small. However, they are eating machines and quickly grow. A black swallowtail caterpillar can denude a parsley plant in a matter of days. To accommodate these beautiful creatures, plant extra for yourself. The caterpillars of swallowtail butterflies are very distinctive. They are stripped in colors of orange, yellow, white and green, on a black background. As they grow to around an inch long, they eat more and more. Then, suddenly they stop eating. Preparation is being made to begin spinning their chrysalis, a hard and sometimes transparent shell.

(4).The adult butterfly emerges from the chrysalis with small, wet, folded wings, and their proboscis curled into a coil. It may take as much as an hour for the butterfly to dry, pump blood into their enlarging wings and be able to fly.

Butterflies (Lepidopterans) display their beautiful colors by reflecting light. Light is reflected by the thousands of tiny scales that cover their four wings. Basically, scales are of two types, pigmented and structural. Pigmented colors are actual colors produced by the insect. Structural colors are some of the most striking and are the result of reflected light. Scales rub off easily, allowing the butterfly to escape predators. Scales also allow the butterfly to absorb light, which is essential for maintaining body temperature.

Butterflies also make use of ultraviolet light, which is crucial for survival because they guide feeding and reproductive behavior. They use ultraviolet rays as visual cues to locate nectar in flowering plants. Unseen to humans, some blossoms have “directions” to nectar painted in ultraviolet light upon the petals of the flower.

In addition to very interesting physical characteristics, Butterflies also exhibit several unique behaviors, one of which is “puddling”. This occurs when many butterflies or moths gather around a puddle of water or a damp area from which water has evaporated. These areas create a concentration of minerals that are necessary elements in their diet. Sodium is the primary attraction.

Butterflies also bask in the bright sun because they cannot fly with a body temperature below 85 degrees.

Some key elements must be provided for success in the construction of your butterfly garden.

Place your nectar plants in a sunny location. Butterflies need an open area for basking in the sun to raise their body temperature.

Shelter is another essential ingredient for your garden. Taller plants and butterflies need protection from strong gusts of wind. Shelter can be wind breaks in the form of deciduous plants, conifers or even heat absorbing fences.

Components other than plants need to be considered. Add a mud puddle, wet sand, or fruit.

A basking rock is a good addition for your garden. It helps the butterfly warm up and provides a resting area.


It is essential that the butterfly gardener provide food for all stages of butterfly life. Adult and larvae require different types of plants for feeding.

Adult Butterfly food: Nectar plants are the first essential component as a primary nutritional source for adult butterflies. Select nectar plants that bloom over several seasons, so that a food source can be provided over a longer period of time. Provide plants of different heights.

Suggested nectar plants for adult butterfly nutrition:

Abelia, Aster, Azalea, Bee Balm, Butterfly Bush, Butterfly Weed (Asclepias), Coneflower, Coreopsis, Gaillardia, Goldenrod, Impatiens, Lantana, Liatris, Marigold, Mexican Sunflower, Pentas, Petunia, Phlox, Scabiosa, Sedum, Verbenia, Yarrow and Zinnia.


Suggested larval foods and host plants:

Carrot, Cassia, Cole Crop Vegetables, Elm, Hackberry, Passion Flower, Queen Ann’s Lace, Rue, Parsley, Hibiscus, Mallow, Milkweed, Snapdragon, Sunflower and Violet.

Butterflies also rely on many native plants and grasses. Native or wildflowers may be a welcome addition to your garden plot. Native plants are beautiful, winter hardy, resistant to disease, low maintenance and an important part of our regional biodiversity.

When trying to attract insects to your yard, the broadscale use of insecticies is inappropriate. Additionally, bugzappers, meant for mosquitoes, attract mainly male moths. Pheromone traps are now available, and will successfully remove many unwanted pests from your yard.

Butterflies of North America, Tulsa County, OK