No one can imagine a meadow, a flower, spring, or summer without the incredibly beautiful butterflies. For hundreds of years, butterflies have been the source of artistic, poetic, and any kind of other inspiration for people around the world. Their shapes, breathtaking patterns, and colors simply make every single person smile. You just can’t stay indifferent in presence of butterflies.
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 plant diversity and other pollinators in the same area. Generally speaking, butterflies are essential to the ecosystem, habitat, and vegetation in almost every area in this world.
But, when we think about butterflies, there is always one and the same question that arises; what do these wonderful creatures eat? In the following paragraphs, 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 live between 2 to 4 weeks. 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. Now, a proboscis is a tube that works like a straw. Butterflies suck the ‘food’ through the ‘straw’ and that is how they eat. However, proboscis doesn’t provide the taste for the butterflies. In fact, they taste the food through the taste buds placed on their feet.
We do 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 don’t find food very easily. They can spend half of their time just looking for food. Because flying exhausts all of their energy pretty quickly, 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, tree sap, etc.
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, and organic material in nature.
Now, let’s talk about the main sources of food for our little, colorful friends. The food butterflies consume generally comes from!
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. And 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 or nectarines. This liquid attracts animals and insects and is essential in the process of pollination. Alongside bees, wasps, moths, and 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 insects essential for the process of pollination.
Some of the plant butterflies eat the nectar from including;
- Perennial Wallflower – the evergreen flower that produces tidy, purple plants/flowers- The plant blooms from late winter to summer, sometimes lasting even until winter frosts. It is abundant in nectar and attracts butterflies.
- 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 in 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 the main target 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 remains available until October. It attracts butterflies and bees due to nectar abundance.
It is important to mention that different kinds of butterfly species enjoy the nectar from different kinds of plants. The aforementioned plants are just a fraction of 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 the nectar from these particular plants include the Easter Black Swallowtail, Pipevine, Giant, Spicebush, Eastern Tiger and Zebra Swallowtail, Painted Lady, Monarch, and many others.
Butterflies are near-sighted, so they’re attracted to masses or clusters of flowers. It is best to get groups of flowers 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. The reason they love such fruit lies in the fact that fruit, as it ripens, 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, plums, etc. However, keep in mind that overripe fruit attracts all 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 required other nutrients and minerals. Muddy puddles seem to be a great source of minerals and salts from the ground, both essential for butterfly’s reproduction and growth. You can see butterflies all 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. Of course, they do have a proper water intake through green vegetation and plant-based nutrition, as well as the nectar. However, puddling is also considered a form of meeting the water requirements.
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 ‘food’;
- 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 and gardens with nectar-producing 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 and herbicides in agricultural areas. Also, limit or avoid the use of pesticide and herbicide on grassland or any other mechanical means of pest control to minimize the loss of nectar-producing plants, trees, flowers, and forbs.
- Try to maintain natural grassland; opt for rotational burning and mowing when needed or appropriate. Preserve existing trees, wildflowers, and plants.
It’s probably hard to believe, but 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. Hopefully, this article was a good insight into the interesting nutritional requirements and habits of butterflies.