Saturday, August 13, 2011

Butterflies: Jewels on the Wing

These two Eastern tiger swallowtails are feasting on echinacea, our native coneflower.

It's been a bad year for butterflies. We just haven't seen nearly as many. There's several reasons from heavy herbicide use by farmers to freezes along the migration path to loss of winter habitat in Mexico.  Only in August have we started to see more of our common butterflies like monarchs, red admirals, red spotted purples, skippers and others. At work, we had our first butterfly, bee and bird festival last weekend. We had a great time, but more fun was staff raising butterflies from eggs. You really don't appreciate the miracle of nature until you see a caterpillar split into a chrysalis.

Butterflies are easy to attract with a little planning and a sunny protected site. First, be open to damage. Caterpillars need to eat plants and they can be quite voracious, so lay off the herbicides and pesticides. Also, caterpillars are very particular about their food sources. Monarchs only eat plants in the milkweed family. Swallowtails like parsely, fennel, and dill. Of course butterfly bush will attract butterflies, but our native plants often provide more nutrients. Some pollinators emerge only when their favorite native nectar and pollen source is blooming.

Add a butterfly muddle.  Take a shallow dish or saucer, fill it with sand and top it off with some small flat rocks. Add water and keep it moist and maybe sprinkle some salt from time to time. Butterflies can't handle the water tension of a birdbath and love a little extra salt. You can also add some pieces of fruit, but by and large, butterflies are attracted to feces.  Well, someone has to.

The Morton Arboretum has a terrific list of plants for nectar and larvae. Check out the Xerces Society for lots of information and to become more involved in butterfly and polllinator conservation. For identification, try Butterflies and Moths of North America.  You can also report sitings and keep track of what's been seen in your area.

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