Ten Fabulous Facts About Butterflies: A Wildlife Garden’s Best Friend

from Wildlife Promise

For great wildlife gardening, it is important to know about pollinators. They can be birds, but most often they are insects that, while feeding on flowers, will help spread pollen to other plants for healthy garden propagation. Bees are the best known pollinators and America’s food supplies depend on them.  But, most peoples’ favorite pollinator of all time is the butterfly (beautiful and no stinger!) Here are a few things about them you may not know.

1. They are (nearly) everywhere

Butterflies are found on every continent but Antarctica. There are an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 different species. Their cousin, the moth, is even more numerous. About 140,000 species of Moths have been counted all over the world. They come in every color in the rainbow and many have brilliant patterns that are true works of art in nature.

2. Many sizes

AtlastMoth-Andrea_Mosley-125352

The atlas moth can have a wingspan almost 12 inches wide. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Andrea Mosley.

Butterflies range from tiny little guys that are just 1/8th of an inch across to a full 12 inches. A butterfly cousin, the Atlas Moth, is the largest and grows to about a foot in wing span.

3. Warm weather lovers

Butterflies don’t much like cool weather and they cannot fly if their body temperature is less than about 85 degrees. This is the reason, for example, that Monarch butterflies like to spend their winters in Mexico.

4. Kind of slow

Some insects move with lightning speed but butterflies are fairly slow. The top flight speed for most is about 12 miles per hour. Some moths can fly 25 miles per hour. The fastest butterflies are skippers which have been clocked at 37mph but most just plod along in those endearing, largely erratic, flight paths.

5. They drink though straws

You can see the curled proboscis in this picture of a black swallowtail butterfly, donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Connie Etter.

You can see the curled proboscis in this picture of a black swallowtail butterfly, donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Connie Etter.

It is called a proboscis and is a tube-like nose that lets them suck up fluids. The champion proboscis is on the Morgan’s Sphinx Moth from Madagascar. It is 12 to 14 inches long to get the nectar from the bottom of a 12 inch deep orchid. Adult butterflies can only feed on liquids, usually nectar. The tubular mouthparts enable them to drink, but they can’t chew solids. So they don’t poop! Their bodies use almost all of the liquids they take in. Sometimes, a butterfly will spray a mist of liquid when it has had too much to drink. This liquid is waste, but it is almost pure water.You also can sometimes see butterflies “puddling.” Butterflies will congregate on wet sand and mud to drink the water and extract minerals from damp puddles. If you place coarse sand in a shallow pan and then insert the pan in the soil of your garden you may see them do this.

6. They taste things with their feet

This gulf fritillary butterfly was photographed by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Amanda Frick.

This gulf fritillary butterfly was photographed by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Amanda Frick.

They look like they might just be standing around but they could just as easily be finding out whether the leaf they are sitting on is good to lay eggs on for their caterpillars to feed on.

7. Short, but exciting, lives

the average butterfly lives just two to four weeks. In that time, it focuses all its energy on two tasks – eating and mating. Some of the smallest butterflies, the blues, may only survive a few days. Butterflies that overwinter as adults, like monarchs and mourning cloaks, can live as long as 9 months.The Brimstone butterfly has the longest lifetime of the adult butterflies: 9-10 months.

8. They use clever tricks to keep from being eaten

Butterflies have lots of hungry predators looking to make a meal of them. Some butterflies fold up their colorful wings to blend in to the background. Others try the opposite approach and display bright colors and patterns that announce they may be toxic if eaten. Some butterflies aren’t toxic at all, but pattern themselves after other species known for their toxicity. A few have patterns on their wings that make THEM look like predators such as the owl butterfly which displays what look like eyes.

9. Epic travelers

The long distance champion is the Monarch butterfly whose journey ranges from northern areas like the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, a distance of about 2,000 miles.

10. You can help them

You can see the proboscis in this picture of a swallowtail butterfly, donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Donna Kert.

Native plants and flowers, like echinacea, are great garden editions for butterflies. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Donna Kert.

If you want to attract butterflies to your garden, plant native flowering plants. The emphasis on flowering plants native to your area is important. Native plants provide butterflies with the nectar or foliage they need as adults and caterpillars. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas has useful lists of recommended native plants for pollinators by region and state. Adult butterflies are attracted to red, yellow, orange, pink and purple blossoms. Monarch butterflies are becoming more threatened due to the disappearance of natural food supplies such as milkweed. Planting milkweed in moist areas of your garden can really help.

Garden-For-Wildlife-150x26Remember that each year the National Wildlife Federation celebrates May is Garden for Wildlife Month. Please join in.