Category Archives: Butterflies

Butterflies of North America (Animated Poster)


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The Dangerous Lives of Butterflies

We tend to envision butterflies as delicate carefree creatures happily flitting from flower to flower and floating lazily through the sky to its next destination. But in reality, butterflies are quite tenacious in surviving the dangerous world they live in.

The fact is a butterfly’s life is not all that rosy. They are surrounded by predators from the time they begin their life as an egg, during the larva and pupa stage, and as an adult. Out of the hundreds of eggs one female deposits during her lifetime, only a few survive to become adults. The butterfly’s ability to survive the many attacks it faces during its short life is what fascinates me about these iconic insects.

The adult butterfly uses many tactics to survive attacks from their many predators including birds, spiders, frogs, lizards, rats, dragonflies, hornets, wasps, and praying mantis.

A spider attacks a butterfly.











Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed (Asclepias, spp.) As the caterpillars eat the milkweed leaves, they ingest chemicals called cardiac glycosides. The caterpillars sequester (hold on to) these toxins as they pupate, and the toxins are transferred to the adult butterflies. Birds or other creatures that eat the monarchs become sick, so they learn to leave both the butterflies and larvae alone.

Female Monarch (Danaus plexipus) depositing an egg on Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica).


Poisonous butterflies have flashy wings to reinforce the association between appearance and illness. For example, the bright orange colors of the Monarch are warning signs for vertebrates to stay away. Scientists call this aposematic coloration. Just as we humans learn that high-visibility vests and orange cones mean danger, birds and other predators learn that brightly colored monarchs are harmful to eat. Many different species of butterflies use aposematic coloration to protect themselves from predators.

The wings of a Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) have similar shape and color schemes as those of a Monarch, ostensibly reducing the predation rate. (Photo by Ken Donaldson.)


Some butterflies simply fool their predators. As caterpillars, they feed on nontoxic plants, and when they become adult butterflies, they are perfectly good food. However, they have evolved wing colors and patterns that look almost exactly like those of the toxic species—a phenomenon called mimicry. Birds and lizards that have learned to avoid bold warning coloration and leave these imitators alone.

The Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) caterpillar feeds on the Pipevine plant (Aristolochia). The Pipevine contains Aristolochic Acids which accumulate in the caterpillar and are transferred to the adult butterfly (sound familiar). This acid is highly toxic. Many species of local butterflies mimic the dark colored Pipevine Swallowtail including the Spice Bush Swallowtail (Papillio troilus),the Red Spotted Purple (Limennitis arthemis), the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papillio polyxenes), and and the the dark morph form of the female Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glacucus).

Some butterflies mimic the dark-colored Pipevine Swallowtail including the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papillio troilus) ,the Red Spotted Purple (Limennitis arthemis), the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papillio polyxenes), and the dark morph form of the female Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glacucus).



Many butterflies protect themselves through camouflage. By folding up their wings, they reveal the undersides and blend in with their surroundings. Through this strategy, known as crypsis, they become nearly invisible to predators.

With the wings closed it is difficult to see the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) on the tree bark.


There are butterflies whose wings are designed to resemble vegetation or tree bark. Some species even have transparent wings. These adaptations serve as camouflage, making it easy for the insects to avoid predators by going unseen.

The transparent wings of the Greta oto allow it to blend in with its environment making it difficult for predators to detect.

Flying Pattern

Butterflies are fast and erratic fliers. Their distinct fluttering motion makes it difficult for predators to determine where they will go next, making pursuit difficult.


There are some species that have enormous spots on their wings that resemble eyes. It’s thought that these eyespots mimic the eyes of predators, therefore, act as a deterrent to predators by making attackers think they are suddenly facing a larger and potentially dangerous animal.

The Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) has a series of eyespots on the inside of the fore and hind wings which are often displayed as the insect holds the wings open to bask. These are believed to direct the attacks of birds away from the more vulnerable body.

The Owl butterflies, the genus Caligo, are known for their huge eyespots, which resemble owls’ eyes. They are found in the rainforests and secondary forests of Mexico, Central, and South America.

Rather than preventing an attack entirely, another use for eyespots is to distract predators. The markings encourage an attacker to aim for parts of the insect’s body that aren’t vital for its survival – such as the edges of the wings. Attacks directed at the wing margins offer a higher chance of survival, as the insect would be able to survive with just a torn wing.

Some butterflies, like this Common Evening Brown (Melanitis leda) have got a series of little eyespots on their posterior so that would distract a predator to a non-vital part of the body.

Scaled Wings and Wing Design

The scales that cover the wings of butterfly form some protection by making the wings slippery so when a predator tries to catch the butterfly, the butterfly can sometimes slip away. Most swallowtails have distinctive tails on their hind wings. These tail-like extensions of the hind wings can distract birds so that when the bird attacks it only is able to get a piece of the wing, allowing the butterfly to escape.

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) was most likely attacked by a predator but survived the attack with only losing part of its wings.

The Red-banded Hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops) has posterior markings and small tails that mimic antennae that confuse predators.

Mother Nature has unique ways to help protect these flying beauties!

Ladybug Love

When I was a young girl, I walked home from school one day and found a bush covered with ladybugs. I was fascinated by these little round red bugs and amazed at how friendly they were.

These tiny bugs actually allowed me to pick them up and hold them. They crawled on my arm and then they would open their red shells and reveal their wings and fly away. I must have lingered too long because my mother came walking up the street to see why I hadn’t arrived home.

Coccinellidae is a widespread family of small beetles ranging in size from 0.8 to 18 mm. The family is commonly known as ladybugs in North America, and ladybirds in Britain and other parts of the English-speaking world. Wikipedia


I’m still fascinated by these little creatures. Last spring I was walking along the Jordon River in Riverton, Utah, USA. I was in search of Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) caterpillars. Thistle grows wild all along the banks of the river and in the spring the butterflies will lay their eggs on the leaves. To my uttermost delight, I not only found Painted Lady larva snug in their silken nests on the thistles, but I also found ladybugs. Lots of ladybugs!

Musk Thistle (Carduus nutans) covered with Ladybugs.

Musk Thistle (Carduus nutans)

Mating Ladybugs

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) larva will spin a silk nest on the leaf to protect themselves from predators.

The ladybug life cycle is not much different from the life cycle of a butterfly. The ladybug goes through the same four stages as a butterfly, the egg stage, the larva stage, the pupa stage, and the adult ladybug stage. That day along the river I was able to observe all four stages of the ladybug.

The lifecycle of a Ladybug.

Ladybugs are one of my best friends in my butterfly garden. One ladybug will consume up to 50 to 60 aphids per day. Adult ladybugs, as well as the larva, will also eat a variety of other insects including scales, mealybugs, leafhoppers, mites, and various types of soft-bodied insects. Ladybugs are a very beneficial group of insects for your garden.

One Ladybug will consume 5,000 aphids in its lifetime.

You can sometimes find Ladybugs to purchase from your local garden center. They can also be found online. One of my favorite activities as a teacher of young children was to read the book The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle (my personal favorite) and then take the children outside to have their very own experience with “friendly” ladybugs. I would place one bug on their hand and watch their faces light up with joy as they held the bug.

A young child is captivated by a Ladybug.

Gardening Know How provides the following tips for when purchasing ladybugs and keeping them in the garden:

First, realize that the same things that you do to attract butterflies will also help keep ladybugs in your yard. Making sure that there is food, shelter, and water will go a long way to making your garden look like a good place to settle down and lay eggs (which means more ladybugs).

Second, you need to help give yourself a day or so to convince the ladybugs that your garden is a good place to live. When you receive your ladybugs, place them in the fridge for six to eight hours. This will slow them down (but will not kill them) and keep them from flying right off when you open the container.

Third, make sure you release them at the right time. Twilight hours are the best time to release ladybugs, as again, they will be likely to fly off. Right after dusk or right before dawn is the perfect time to let your ladybugs go.

Fourth, release the ladybugs in the right place. The easier you make it for them to find food and water, the faster they will figure out your yard is where they should stay. Choose either an aphid-infested plant or one of the flowering plants that ladybugs like. Gently water the plant so that the leaves have water on them. Then, release the ladybugs near it.

With these tips, attracting and keeping ladybugs in your garden can be a snap. You can enjoy the benefits of attracting ladybugs all summer long along with the butterflies!

The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle will delight children of all ages. Click here to purchase.

Purchase live Ladybugs here.

The Insect Lore Ladybug Land with Live Larvae lets kids and adults observe every fascinating stage of ladybug metamorphosis at home or in the classroom. Click here to purchase.

Disgusting Butterfly Eating Habits

Sometimes butterflies can be downright disgusting, especially male butterflies. Before you get upset with me, let me explain.

Male butterflies need salts and amino acids because it is believed these nutrients help aid their reproductive success. The dissolved salts and minerals are used to make sperm as well as pheromones that the males use to attract females. So male butterflies will congregate on wet sand and mud to absorb these minerals through their proboscis, the tube-like feeding structure of the butterfly (i.e., the proboscis, equated to a “tongue”). This behavior is called “mud-puddling” or simply “puddling”.

Male Swallowtail (Papilio spp.) butterflies puddling along a river bank. Photo by Chelsey Danger. Used with permission.

They not only like to sip from wet sand and mud, but male butterflies can also be found feeding on animal feces and even the rotting corpses of dead animals. That’s right! It drives them wild. They uncoil their proboscis and slurp away, lapping up the salts and amino acids they can’t get from flowers. Think of this behavior as going to the local pub to enjoy imbibing with mates.

Butterflies on elephant dung – Kaeng Krachan Photo by JJ Harrison (

A trick many professional butterfly photographers use to attract butterflies is to urinate on a dead fish. Seriously. I understand that butterflies especially like human urine because of the high salt content. When the butterflies are puddling, they are so absorbed in what they are doing that it makes it easier to approach them and get closer to them without them flying away.

Animal poop is full of all kinds of helpful nutrients, which butterflies will feast upon when given the chance.

Rotting animal flesh is a huge butterfly favorite, so much so that researchers have begun baiting tropical butterfly traps with shrimp heads, chunks of dead snake, and prawn paste. “Traps were baited and checked for cycles of five days, with extra bait added each day to ensure a range of decay,” wrote one scientist in her report. Butterfly researchers really don’t get enough credit. (See

Click here or on the photo below to learn how to make a puddling station in your butterfly garden.

Front and top views of a ceramic birdbath converted into a butterfly puddling station. Click Here to view an assortment of bird baths for your garden.


Oh Dear! A Deer Ate My Plants!

There is nothing more disheartening than waking up one morning to discover that deer have devoured the beautiful plants in your butterfly garden. All the expense and work you put into your garden disappeared overnight.

Short of installing a nine-foot-tall fence, there are few sure cures for the problem, but planting things deer don’t prefer to eat will help. If deer are a problem in your area you will need to plant deer-resistant plants. Here are twelve plants that deer typically will pass by in your garden in favor of tastier treats down the road.

American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) on Verbena on a Stick (Verbena bonariensis)

Verbena on a Stick (aka Tall Verbena)
Verbena bonariensis, zones 7-10

Verbena bonariensis can be grown from seed and blooms the first year. The tall stems are topped with clusters of rosy-purple flowers make it a wonderful addition to any garden. It’s a host plant for the Common Buckeye butterfly. Verbena bonariensis is hardy in zones 7-10, and can be grown as a self-sowing annual in colder regions. It’s very vigorous and drought tolerant. Purchase seeds here.

Cone Flower (Echinacea purpurea) is a butterfly magnet!

Echinacea purpurea, zones 3 to 9

This native wildflower is a must for every butterfly garden! Coneflower is easy to grow and provides masses of tall purple blooms. The daisy-like blooms of the coneflower will also attract bees and birds from miles around, and the hummingbirds love them too! Purple Coneflowers have long been known to be one of the most effective plants at helping to establish butterfly populations as well. Purchase plants here.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) on Liatris.

Blazing Star (aka Gay Flower)
Liatris spp., zones 4-9

These native prairie plants add beautiful spikes of color to the garden. This flower has an interesting blooming habit, as it blooms from the top down on the flower stalk rather than from the bottom up. This makes it a great choice for cut flowers. Blazing star is a favorite nectar crop for monarchs and many other butterflies and hummingbirds. Once the blooms are done, it makes a great snack for finches, too. Find Liatris bulbs here.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) on Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).

Anise Hyssop
Agastache foeniculum, zones 4-10

Anise Hyssop has very showy flowers, fragrant foliage and seems to be of little interest to deer. It self-seeds readily and often blooms the first year. It’s a bee, hummingbird, and butterfly magnet and makes an excellent addition to herb gardens, borders, perennial gardens, and prairies. It’s super heat and drought tolerant and blooms for weeks in late summer. Plus it’s a great cut flower.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) on Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum).

Joe Pye Weed
Eupatorium purpureum,  zones 4 to 9

This tall, native perennial prefers moist soil where it can stretch up to 9 feet high. The clusters of pink-purple blooms smell faintly of vanilla. Joe Pye-weed blooms well into fall, bringing the season’s last butterflies to your yard.

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sipping nectar from Scarlet Bee Balm (Monarda didyma). By Joe Schneid, Louisville, Kentucky – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) on Wild Bergamot, Public Domain,

Bee Balm
Monarda didyma, Monarda fitulosa, Monarda punctata, Monarda citriodora, zones 4 to 9

Butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy its rich nectar of this native perennial. The tubular flowers are typically shades of red, purple, pink and white, and resemble small fireworks. They are late blooming, adding lots of color to the garden when other flowers have finished. Find plants here.

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia).

Russian Sage
Perovskia atriplicifolia, zones 4-9

Russian sage has fragrant foliage and attracts hummingbirds, honey bees, and butterflies. This is a tough plant that needs little care. This is a vigorous, hardy, heat-loving and drought tolerant plant that will fill the garden with lavender-purple flowers that bloom from summer until fall. Purchase plants here.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on Butterfly Weed (Asclepias Tuberosa).

Butterfly Weed
Asclepias tuberosa, zones 3 to 9

Butterfly Weed is not only a host plants for Monarch butterflies, but the flowers it produces are also attractive to many other kinds of butterflies. This resilient plant is a must-have addition to any garden. It tolerates dry soil and prefers plenty of sunshine. Click here to purchase plants.

A Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)  enjoys the bloom of Cosmos.

Cosmos spp., zones-5-11

Cosmos are easy to grow from seed and easy to maintain. They come in a variety of colors and are gorgeous to use a cut flower as well. I planted cosmos for the first time last summer in my garden and I was delighted how these delicate blooms attracted a variety of butterflies. Find Seeds here.

A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sipping nectar from a Black & Blue (Salvia guaranitica). Photo by Kathy Greene Jones. (Used with permission.)

Salvia leucantha, Salvia coccinea, Salvia guaranitica, Salvia greggii, Salvia azurea, Salvia elegans, zones 7 to 10

If you want to attract pollinators to your garden, plant salvia. While its fragrant foliage is not preferred by deer, all sorts of bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds are dazzled by its blooms which appear around early summer. There are many different salvia species are excellent for butterflies and hummingbirds. Most salvias are drought tolerant once established. Find seeds and plants here.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) “Miss Huff” Lantana.

Lantana camara ‘Miss Huff’, zones 7-10 (annual in colder zones)

All lantanas are a wonderful addition to your pollinator garden, but my personal favorite is “Miss Huff”. It is the most cold hardy lantana known – established clumps have survived temperatures as low as 0°F. Pink, orange and yellow flowers bloom continuously from early summer to frost attracting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. It is drought tolerant and does well in clay soils. Find seeds and plants here.

There are other strategies you can use to keep the deer at bay. One friend of mine uses a blast of water to scare the deer away when they come into her yard. She installed a motion activated water blaster. She says it has saved her flowers for the butterflies and hummingbirds.

You can purchase a Hoont Cobra Yard and Garden Motion Activated Water Blaster at

An ultrasonic animal repellent is a less-invasive way to deter deer and other critters from venturing into the garden.

Diaotec Ultrasonic Animal Repellent Solar Powered Waterproof Outdoor Animal Repeller Deterrent are highly rated at

You can also apply proven deer repellents. Deer repellent products are effective in obstructing a deer’s sense of smell and taste. Deer Out is ideal repellents to apply to your plants because they affect both senses. These repellents emit a scent that reminds deer of a decaying animal. This signals deer and other animals to vacate the yard. Additionally, the repellent tastes like garlic which makes it unappealing to deer.

Whatever you do to deter deer, don’t let the deer deter you from planting your garden for butterflies and hummingbirds!

Click here for a more comprehensive list of deer-resistant plants.