It’s hard to imagine a summertime meadow full of flowers without the company of a host of beautiful butterflies. Throughout history, butterflies have been a source of artistic and poetic inspiration for people around the world. Their forms, breath-taking patterns, and stunning colors make every person smile.
But, butterflies aren’t there to just be pretty. They play a very important role in nature. Butterflies contribute to ecosystem restoration as they supply pollination and a source of food. Their presence also contributes to the diversity of plants and other pollinators in the same area. Generally speaking, butterflies are essential to the ecosystems they are present in across the world.
When we think about butterflies, it is possible that a question will arise; what do these wonderful creatures eat? Today, we’ll explore the nutrition of butterflies, what they eat, and whether their nutrition plays an important role in nature’s cycles. So, without further ado, let’s get started!
- Butterflies belong to a group of insects called Lepidoptera.
- They have four wings that are covered by colored scales.
- Butterflies are mainly active during the day.
- There are over 20,000 species of butterflies in the world.
- A butterfly’s life consists of 4 stages; egg, larva, pupa, and adult butterfly.
- Butterflies in the adult stage usually live between 2 to 4 weeks. But some species can live longer, for example Mourning Cloak lives for almost a year.
Butterflies and Their Source of Food
In case you’ve ever wondered, butterflies eat and drink through their proboscis – a tube that works like a straw. However, proboscis doesn’t provide taste for the butterflies. In fact, they taste the food through taste buds positioned on their feet.
We have to point out that butterflies don’t really ‘eat’ food. Because the proboscis tubes are straw-like, butterflies can only consume liquids. Furthermore, butterflies can’t find food very easily – they can spend half of their time just looking for it. Flyying exhausts their energy pretty quickly, so butterflies need to find rich sources of food that provide high amounts of sugar.
Butterflies generally consume sugar, but they also require a variety of minerals, amino acids, nitrogen, and salts. All of these can be found in flowers, muddy or wet soil, pollen, and tree sap.
In extreme cases, butterflies can get their nutrients from sweat, urine, feces, tears, and even rotting carcasses. It is important to mention that a small number of butterflies never visit flowers, but gain nourishment from tree sap, rotting animal matter, or organic material in nature.
Now, let’s talk about the main sources of food for our little, colorful friends.
Note: Butterflies have different food requirements through stages of life. A caterpillar requires leaves and foliage of plants like elm, ash, cottonwood, hackberry, mallows, carrots, grasses, cabbage, parsley, dill, sweet pea, etc. An adult butterfly requires nectar-producing flowers of plants like butterfly bush, butterfly weed, liatris, pentas, black-eye susan, etc.
Flowers – Nectar
Nectar is a sugary liquid produced by plants in glands known as nectaries. This liquid attracts animals and insects and is essential in the process of pollination. Alongside bees, wasps, moths, and some bats, butterflies consume nectar as their main source of nutrition. That is why it is important to plant nectar-rich plants in the garden so that it attracts butterflies and other essential pollinators.
Some of the plant butterflies consume the nectar from include;
- Perennial Wallflower – a evergreen plant that produces tiny, purple flowers. The plant blooms from late winter to summer, sometimes lasting until winter frosts. It is abundant in nectar and attracts all kinds of pollinators.
- Marjoram – also known as sweet marjoram; it is an aromatic herb from the mint family used in different cuisines, from the Mediterranean to Western Asia. From June to September, marjoram blooms with white, pink, or purple flowers.
- Buddleia – also known as the ‘butterfly bush’, Buddleia is a fast-growing shrub known for nectar-rich flower heads. As such, the flower is one of the main targets of butterflies, bees, moths, and other insects.
- Hebe – an evergreen shrub that blooms in clusters of white, pink, or purple flowers. Hebe starts blooming in July and continues until October. It attracts butterflies and bees due to its nectar abundance.
It is important to mention that different kinds of butterfly species feed on the nectar from different kinds of plants. The aforementioned plants are just a fraction of the nectar-rich plants that serve as a source of food for butterflies from spring until the end of summer.
Other plants that provide nectar for butterflies include milkweed, honeysuckle, azalea, sunflower, daisies, lantana, clovers, and many other garden and field plants. Butterfly species that enjoy nectar from these particular plants include the Easter Black Swallowtail, Pipevine, Giant, Spicebush, Eastern Tiger and Zebra Swallowtail, Painted Lady, and Monarch.
Butterflies are near-sighted, so they’re attracted to masses or clusters of flowers. It is best to group flowers together in the garden to attract the most butterflies during the blooming season.
Also, if you want to attract a lot of butterflies in your garden, make sure to go for plants like Butterfly Bush, Lantana, Milkweed, Zinnia, and Tithonia. These plants seem to be the richest in nectar. And since butterflies consume nectar as their main source of nutrition, your garden will be a heaven for them throughout the spring and summer.
Old Fruit – Sugar
Just like any insect, butterflies simply love old, overripe fruit. As fruit ripens, it becomes increasingly sweeter. The sweetness of the overripe fruit attracts butterflies as a source of nutrition.
This is probably their main source of food in the autumn months when the nectar is starting to become scarce. Butterflies are especially fond of overripe bananas, peaches, pears, apples, and plums. However, keep in mind that overripe fruit attracts many other kinds of insects too, like bees, ants, mosquitos, fruit flies, hornets, and wasps.
Muddy Puddles – Minerals, Amino Acids, Salt
Alongside the nectar and sugar, butterflies also require other nutrients and minerals. Muddy puddles seem to be a great source of minerals and salts, both essential for a butterfly’s reproduction and growth. You can sometimes see butterflies gathered around a muddy puddle, especially in the summer after a rain shower.
It is important to mention that butterflies also drink water from muddy puddles. They do have some water intake through sipping droplets on vegetation, as well as contained in the nectar, and drinking from muddy puddles supplements this intake.
How To Attract Butterflies By providing Them With Food
If you’re looking to have more butterflies in your garden the following spring and summer, here are some tips on how you can attract them by providing them with foodsources;
- Plant trees that attract butterflies. Such trees include quaking aspen, elm, ash, hawthorn, poplar, fruit trees, cottonwood, hackberry, and willow.
- Plant and promote the growth of wildflower meadows with nectar-rich plants like Butterfly Bush, Butterfly Weed, Purple Coneflower, Asters, Joe-Pye weed, Liatris, Pentas, and others.
- Encourage the growth of legumes like clovers and pea, as well as a dock, milkweed, nettle, and native grasses.
- Avoid the use of pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides and fungicides) in cultivated areas. Also, limit or avoid the use of pesticides on grassland or any mechanical means of pest control to minimize the loss of nectar-producing plants.
- Try to maintain natural grassland; opt for rotational mowing where appropriate. Preserve existing trees, wildflowers, and plants.
Even small, delicate creatures like butterflies still require versatile nutrition and proper vitamin, minerals, salt, amino acids, and water intake. The majority of butterflies require and rely on nectar as the primary source of food and necessary nutrients, but they also gather the much-needed vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and salts from other sources like muddy puddles. We hope this article was a good insight into the interesting nutritional requirements and feeding habits of butterflies.