Around the Countryside Developing a Butterfly Habitat 

February 22, 2021

Marion Barnes – Senior County Extension Agent Clemson University

Caterpillars eating parsley

Caterpillars eating parsley

Butterflies provide a beautiful living component to our gardens and yards with their vibrant colors, sizes, and graceful flight. Though only one group of the many pollinators, they play an essential role by pollinating many wildflowers, shrubs, vines, and other woody plants. With habitat loss occurring throughout our state, adding butterfly habitat to the landscape is a vital step in aiding pollinator populations. Simply providing food sources and other living requirements for adults and caterpillars can ensure their continued survival and contribution to the environment.

Different butterfly species require specific types of habitats ranging from deep shady woodlands to open fields and meadows. Butterflies visit habitats for food, water, and shelter requirements. The more the variety of habitats and plants you provide on your property, the more diverse species of butterflies you will likely have.

Although we all enjoy and appreciate the winged adult butterflies, understanding their entire lifecycle is vital in developing a thriving butterfly habitat. Butterflies must go through four stages of development to complete their lifecycle, egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Each stage differs from the prior in appearance and habitat needs.

A butterfly’s lifecycle begins with the egg, usually laid on the underside of leaves on a host plant. After a couple of weeks, the eggs hatch, and tiny caterpillars emerge. These caterpillars, also called larva, feed on the host plant leaves and shed their skin several times while growing during this stage of their lifecycle. In a month or so, the larva begins to develop the pupal or chrysalis stage. After a few weeks, an adult butterfly will emerge from the chrysalis or cocoon-like structure. Most adult butterflies have a short life cycle. Some species mate and live only a matter of days; others are known to survive for more than a year. To attract butterflies to your yard, you need to provide food, shelter, and breeding habitat. Many homeowners improve butterfly habitats by establishing a butterfly garden.

The following are a few suggestions for establishing a butterfly garden.

Since butterflies are cold-blooded creatures, they need sunny areas to warm in the sunshine. A few flat rocks or stones in an open area will give butterflies a place to warm-up on cool mornings. They will also use brick walkways and concrete patios.

  • To avoid conflicts, place plantings for butterflies away from bird feeding areas for obvious reasons.
  • Provide both host and nectar plants in your butterfly garden. Host plants will provide a place for adult butterflies to lay their eggs and caterpillars upon hatching to feed on. Most butterflies will only lay eggs on plants that are a suitable source of food for their young. For example, the caterpillars of the Monarch butterfly will only feed on plants in the milkweed family.
  • Nectar plants will provide feed for adults. Include flowers in your butterfly habitat since they are a primary source of nectar. Certain color flowers are more effective in attracting butterflies. Butterflies tend to be drawn to red, purple, orange, pink, yellow, and white.
  • Butterflies often use shrubs for shelter from wind, rain, and overnight protection. Some nectar plants such as honeysuckle vines can serve as places of refuge. A butterfly box, if placed in a shady spot, may also provide protection.
  • Butterflies cannot drink from open water. Butterflies use mud puddles as a source of moisture, minerals, and nutrients released from the soil. Allowing a water hose run will create a wet area or small puddle in the garden for butterflies to drink.
  • Be mindful of pesticide use around your yard and garden since specific pesticides can be toxic to butterflies and larva. Treat insect pests only when damage thresholds are reached and practice integrated pest management (IPM) to reduce pesticide use.

Hopefully, if you plan to start a butterfly garden, these suggestions will help improve your butterfly habitat. Remember that some butterfly species are more plentiful during certain times of the year, and your butterfly population will likely change throughout the season. For more information on butterfly gardens, check out the Clemson Home and Garden Information Factsheet, HGIC 1701 Butterflies in the Garden. 

Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service offers its programs to people of all ages, regardless of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or family status and is an equal opportunity employer


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *