How To Feed A Visiting Monarch

And other native butterflies that you can attract to your garden

  • Mark Wexler
  • Aug 01, 1994
Ron Boender was bored. The year was 1983, and the entrepreneur had recently sold his Fort Lauderdale communications firm. He began puttering around the garden. "I always enjoyed watching butterflies," says Boender, who was raised on a farm in Illinois. "And so I started cultivating plants to attract the insects to my yard in Florida."

Butterflies, Boender discovered, are fussy creatures. Most species are attracted to the nectar of a few varieties of flowers, but usually deposit their eggs on just one or two types of plants - the only plants their larvae will feed on after emerging from their eggs.Within months after his retirement, Boender had grown more than 400 nectar-producing and larval-food plants on his property. He also had taken meticulous notes on the plant preferences and behavior of each butterfly species. "My wife and three children thought I was obsessed," he recalls, "and in fact it was a hobby gone wild."

Today, at age 55, Boender has turned his hobby into a second career. Since 1988, he has operated Butterfly World in South Florida, the largest educational, butterfly-breeding facility in the United States-a place where hundreds of people go every year to take courses in creating butterfly habitat at their homes, schools and offices. As a result of his efforts, nearly half of the elementary schools in his area now garden for butterflies. "Ron and his facility have had a tremendous impact on the people of South Florida," says University of Florida entomologist Thomas Emmel.

Boender believes he has good reason for his obsession. Butterflies, he maintains, are one of the few types of wildlife anyone can help provide habitat for on a consistent basis. "All it takes," he says, "is research on which native species are most common to your area, and which plants those species require for feeding and reproduction."

Although a butterfly's brain is only about the size of a pinhead, it contains a complex set of stimulators and regulators. A butterfly smells with its antennae, tastes with its feet and has remarkably acute vision that enables it to zero in on preferred food plants.

About 760 known species flit through the United States and Canada. Most butterflies live as adults for only a few weeks. But some, such as the monarchs of the eastern United States, which migrate 2,500 miles each year to wintering grounds in Mexico, survive for several months. All of the species follow the same general life cycle: The adult females lay eggs on a specific host plant in spring, summer or fall (depending upon the species); each egg hatches into a larva, which spends all of its time eating until it transforms into a chrysalis and eventually emerges as an adult.

Because butterflies have such specific plant needs, several U.S. species have vanished after their habitat was destroyed. Currently, 15 North American species are federally listed as endangered or threatened; 70 more are candidates for the U.S. Endangered Species List.

For those imperiled insects, says Washington State lepidopterist Robert Pyle, "butterfly gardening won't provide any relief because we're not going to attract those species." However, proper backyard plantings can aid some declining species. They can also, says Pyle, help keep "common species common," and help maintain their distribution so they don't become rare. Adds Cornell University entomologist Thomas Eisner: "Whether you have just a few plants or an entire garden to attract butterflies, there's something magical about having the delicate insects around your home."

Most experts agree that there are a few common rules for attracting butterflies to your yard. "Always plant in an area that receives a lot of sun, and avoid using insecticides and other garden chemicals," says Boender. Plants in full sun produce more nectar than those in shade. The insects must maintain high body temperatures to stay active; they bask in sunlight while feeding.

The insects also are most often drawn to clusters of same-colored flowers, rather than to mixed bouquets. And newly emerged butterflies often need a place to drink-a pond or wide flat saucer filled with water and pebbles to perch on.

What kinds of flowers attract butterflies? "In general, bright single flowers with corollas that are not too deep and petals large enough for good perching," says Pyle. Unlike most other insects, butterflies can see the full spectrum of color, and each species seems to have an affinity to certain hues. Virtually all of the insects, however, are attracted to Buddleia, a sort of catnip for butterflies. It grows in most climates. Boender also recommends the following flowering plants, which provide nectar for most species in most parts of the country: heliotrope, lantana, milkweed, mint, pentas, verbena and zinnias.

No matter how many nectar sources you plant to attract the adults, the insects are only apt to stay in your yard if you also grow proper larval food plants, planting them near nectar sources. "This is the key to providing true habitat," says Boender. "If you just plant nectar sources, you're not really gardening for butterflies." The larvae of a few species, such as gray hairstreaks or painted ladies, will feed on a number of plants. But most are specialized. Monarch larvae, for instance, eat only milkweed.

With help from lepidopterists and experienced butterfly gardeners all across the country, Boender has charted the larval plant preferences of some of North America's most common native species, region by region. - Mark Wexler

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