The monarch (Danaus plexippus) is the classic poster child of butterflies, at least in North America. There are plenty of good reasons for this. It’s large and gorgeous. Its annual migratory pattern is a stunning story. Its life cycle is easy to observe and study, making it ideal for classrooms and amateur naturalists alike. The monarch is also an object lesson in conservation, as it has been endangered by a once-systematic elimination of its only host plants (milkweeds). Its lookalike, the viceroy, is the classic example of Batesian mimicry. In short, the monarch is a biology and ecology lesson all neatly wrapped in a beautiful package.
The monarch also just so happens to be the only butterfly species I have documented in my garden through all of its life stages. I have also collected its caterpillars to raise. I learned (or possibly relearned?) the term “instar” by way of the butterfly garden, and had the privilege of viewing monarch caterpillars at each of these stages. If you ask me, the caterpillars are almost as attractive as the adults. It’s pretty astonishing to watch them eat and grow so rapidly from the moment they emerge from their eggs as tiny pinheads of life.
Caterpillars, from first to fifth instar
If you want monarchs, all you need do is plant milkweeds (flowers in genus Asclepias). Several species are native and/or do well in the Mid-Atlantic region. I have common milkweed (A. syriaca), butterfly weed (A. tuberosa), swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) and bloodflower (A. curassavica) in my garden. Bloodflower is not native in Maryland, but it grows well here and the monarchs still eat it. Additional milkweeds for your area can be found here. The fact that “weed” is in the name must be what turns folks off, because it really is an attractive plant available in a variety of colors. Milkweeds support a wide variety of other native insects, as well, so they are an excellent choice for anyone desiring to plant natives.
As picky as the caterpillars are, adult monarchs seem to be pretty gregarious feeders. I have seen them take nectar from the milkweeds as a one-stop shop but also from joe-pye weed, butterfly bush, and zinnias. It seems the best strategy for helping monarchs find your milkweed is to plant a variety of perennials and annuals that flower at different times throughout the summer. With the right mix of plants you can expect to see several generations between their mass migrations. If you want to protect them from predators and watch them through a full life cycle, all you really need is a clear, ventilated box or jar, some sticks, and milkweed leaves.
As the peak season for my butterfly garden begins to wind down, I find myself contemplating how it has performed over the past few years. It certainly has looked more impressive in each successive year, and most of the plants have continued to thrive. Yet, I don’t think that’s quite how I should measure the success of such a project. I don’t mean to say that I shouldn’t derive any satisfaction from the growth of the plants themselves – I certainly indulge in that sense of pride and I think that’s fine. The goal of this garden, though, is to support local biodiversity. If it’s not doing so, it’s failing and requires some analysis and change.
Unfortunately I can’t do a particularly scientific investigation. I’ve no control, since I didn’t do any kind of exhaustive analysis of the life in my yard before the butterfly garden. I’m still learning to identify a lot of the local fauna and so any trend of increase would be suspect. All I can really do is make a list of living things I have identified in my yard and record cases of animals exploiting the butterfly garden. Lack of scientific rigor aside, that’s not nothing!
Butterflies and Moths
Seems like the obvious place to start, no? So far I have managed to count sixteen species of butterflies and seven species of moths in my yard since beginning the garden. That seems like a fairly small number, but there are certainly quite a few unidentified moths and some unidentified butterflies who have visited. Moths can be particularly vexing – the Maryland Biodiversity Project lists 2,529 species reported in Maryland alone.
I can only confirm one species of butterfly, the monarch (Danaus plexippus), as having completed a full life cycle in the butterfly garden. many others have taken nectar and I’ve spotted quite a few unidentified caterpillars, but monarchs are the champs.
late instar caterpillar
Above we have a complete monarch life cycle all documented within my garden: egg, hatchling caterpillar, late instar caterpillar, pupa, and adult. Thank you milkweeds!
Probably the most common visitors, or at least the most commonly seen due to their large, ostentatious nature are tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus). Their host plant is the tuliptree, which is abundant in the area. I don’t get to watch these guys grow but the adults are beautiful enough on their own.
I’ve also seen a handful of black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes). These guys can be tricky to distinguish from the dark morph female tiger swallowtails, but a ventral view can cinch it for you. Black swallowtails have a second row of orange spots which the dark morph tigers lack. Black swallowtails feed on dill, parsley, fennel, Queen Anne’s Lace, and related plants.
Some butterflies aren’t quite as exciting as others, and here I move from the largest, showiest bunch to the most boring: the cabbage white (Pieris rapae). Next to the tiger swallowtails these are probably the butterflies I see the most, and I usually don’t even bother trying to photograph them. Nevertheless, they are butterflies so they most certainly count!
In the same family (Pieridae) as the cabbage white is the larger, more attractive, and less common cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae). This can be separated from other sulphurs in our area by size – by comparison it is quite large. They’re not known to successfully breed in Maryland, but where they do breed partridge pea is a preferred host plant.
I’ll take the next two species, from family Lycaenidae, together because of their superficial similarities. Both are small, blue butterflies with splashes of red. They are both tiny enough to often go unnoticed. Without a detailed look at their markings, both are easily confused for one another and for many similar species throughout their respective ranges. The eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas) is one of the most common butterflies of the Mid-Atlantic. I never realized this until last year, but once I was armed with this information I started seeing them constantly. However, due to their size and abundance other small, blue butterflies can often be mistaken for this diminutive wonder. Among those similar species is the red-banded hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops), which happens to be the only other member of Lycaenidae I have found in my yard.
a pair of eastern tailed-blues on New England aster
An eastern tailed-blue (dorsal view)
An eastern tailed-blue showing the nominative tail
This next group, collectively called “skippers,” is sometimes separated from butterflies and moths as a third group of Lepidopterans and is classified in family Hesperiidae. I have no opinion on whether skippers are “butterflies” or something similar but different. I am including them with butterflies here for simplicity’s sake and not to take a stand. I do have an opinion on their confusingness: namely, they are. It’s a challenge to identify skippers to species, with a few exceptions. So, take some of my specific identifications below with a grain of salt, although I have tried to be careful to count only those I have some reason to be confident in.
The silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus) is one of the exceptions. It’s a large, common skipper with distinctive markings and as such is incredibly helpful to the curious naturalist. That said, I’ve never found it a particularly compelling species and so I am ready to move on.
There are a LOT of small, basically orange, skippers. I believe the above is a least skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor). Even if this individual isn’t, I am quite confident that some of the skippers I have seen are. I don’t necessarily have photos of the individuals which are the most definitively representative of the species.
There are also quite a few small, basically brown skippers. Further confusing things is that some of them vary by sex and some species are sometimes brownish, sometimes orangeish, and there’s a bit of inherent overlap between what is “brown” and what is a sort of dirty orange. Apparently the truly diagnostic features can involve antenna shape and length, body shape, and other similarly hard to spot identifiers. Fortunately for me, the above skipper was identified by the experts at bugguide.net as a sachem (Atalopedes campestris).
This one was also IDed for my by the bugguide folks (who I can’t plug enough as a naturalist’s best friend) as a Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius). I arrived there myself first but it is always nice to have that expert corroboration. Anyway, see what I mean with all that “orange” and “brown” business?
I identified this zabulon skipper (Poanes zabulon) on my own. I was fortunate in that it is a female, because they seem much more distinctive than the males (which fall into that category of small, pale-orange skippers with similar patterns).
I’ll close out the butterflies with probably my most tenuous ID: the fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus). Here I am going by the tiny dark spots on the orange wings, and I am really not sure that’s quite enough. This is a known and fairly common species in Montgomery County that does have those characteristics. I’m not quite knowledgeable enough to rule out all other species for certain.
Butterfly visitors not pictured: clouded sulphur (Colias philodice), pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos), and painted lady (Vanessa cardui). I’ve also caught glimpses of fritillaries (probably but not certainly great spangled fritillary) and a probable common buckeye or two.
Moths, as I mentioned above, are a far more diverse group of insects than butterflies. It’s a near certainty that more species of moths than butterflies have visited my butterfly garden. Somewhat paradoxically, that diversity so complicates things that I have only identified seven moth species.
Probably the coolest of these is the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe). These things really do look and behave very much like hummingbirds.
The tulip-tree beauty (Epimeces hortaria), named for its host plant, is a bit drab but oddly beautiful for all that drabness.
Returning to the realm of moths that aren’t classically mothlike, I occasionally come across the ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea). This little guy looks like a “true bug” or plant bug at rest but flies like a wasp.
My favorite moth find in my garden has to be Hypocala andremona, a species of “underwing” moth most common in Texas. Its host plant is the persimmon, one of which hangs over from our neighbors’ yard. I was clueless about this moth until once again bugguide came to the rescue.
Moth visitors not pictured: Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella), common bagworm (Psyche casta), and tent caterpillar (Malacosoma sp.). The Isabella tiger moth is the adult form of the classic “wooly bear” caterpillar.
Planting a butterfly garden was one of my first landscaping priorities after moving into my home in 2014. On one level, this was motivated by the idea that butterflies are pretty, and it would therefore be cool to see a lot of them often. This is true, and a perfectly fine motivation, but “butterfly garden” is a bit of a misnomer, at least in terms of the endgame. Butterflies (and the other pollinators attracted to the same plants) are hugely important to the ecosystem. Butterfly larvae are a major food source for birds and small mammals – some birds feed almost exclusively on caterpillars of a single species. Increasing local butterfly diversity and population will thus increase the local overall biodiversity and biomass, and sometimes dramatically. It doesn’t have quite the same ring, but I like to think of my garden as a “biodiversity garden.” Some call them “native plant gardens,” or a similar variant. whatever the term, the idea is to support the ecosystem by planting plants that have naturally evolved with other life in the area over millennia.
Designing a butterfly garden, as any garden, begins with deciding what you wish to plant. The goal here is to include mostly native plants that will attract butterflies (and moths and skippers – I probably should be saying “lepidopterans”). Butterflies rely on plants for food during both active stages of their life cycle: the adults feed on nectar and the caterpillars feed on leaves. Like humans, the young of butterflies can range from not picky (generalist) to extremely picky (specialist) eaters. The monarch is the classic example of a specialist – its caterpillars will only feed on milkweeds (Asclepias species). Plants a given species will eat are called “host plants” for the species, and females will only lay their eggs on suitable plants. Adults are typically much more cosmopolitan in their tastes, but feed on nectar. A successful butterfly garden will feature nectar plants to attract the butterflies and host plants to keep them there and propagate them. Of course, many plants serve both purposes, making them ideal choices.
There seems to be some debate regarding the ideal ratio of host plants to nectar plants. My beginner’s take is that it probably doesn’t matter much as long as both are present in significant quantities. However, the more limited the space the more selective one must be. I have hedged my bets a bit by planting as many plants as possible which fill both roles and building around those. Additionally, it’s helpful to consider what is planted elsewhere in your yard and immediate neighborhood. Butterflies after all will not recognize the boundaries of your garden or your property, so plants nearby can also contribute. Many trees and shrubs which may not be practical fits in your butterfly garden space are host plants for a diverse mixture of butterflies and moths. Most common oaks, for example, host hundreds of caterpillar species. Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a host plant for the appropriately named spicebush swallowtail. Viburnums host many species and produce lovely white flower clusters.
Aside from plants, a number of other things can encourage butterflies to visit your garden or extend their stay. Many butterflies will feed on overripe fruit, so a suspended tray of fruit can be a nice feature. Some feeders include a sponge soaked in sugary water as well. Butterflies also engage in a behavior called “puddling” to soak up nutrients from wet soil, and providing them with a space to do so can entice them to hang around longer. You can purchase a puddler or make your own, or simply rely on mud puddles. Butterfly houses can also be bought or built as encouragement for your visitors to hang around. Rock piles and/or log piles can serve a similar function (providing shelter from weather and predators). It’s also a good idea to add a place for humans to sit and observe the wildlife; I built a bench from (mostly) natural wood for this purpose.
Much of the source material I turned to when planning my butterfly garden focused pretty extensively on monarchs and milkweeds. It led me to wonder why monarchs in particular get so much of the butterfly press, but the more I think about it the more it makes sense. Monarchs are beautiful, large butterflies that are well known. Because of the viceroy, they’re part of the definitive example of Batesian mimicry. They are also in trouble because milkweeds are in trouble. As I’ve mentioned, their larvae will only eat milkweeds. As one might infer from the name, these plants have long been regarded as, well, weeds. People have been systematically removing milkweeds from a lot of areas, unwittingly endangering monarchs in the process. It isn’t just a problem for monarchs, though. The milkweed tussock moth, small and large milkweed bugs, red milkweed beetle, and other insects all rely heavily on Asclepias. The relationship between milkweeds and monarchs is a very illustrative example, but far from the only example. Adult butterflies will feed on the nectar of non-native flowers, but virtually no non-native plant can host a native caterpillar.
This returns me to the butterfly garden’s true purpose: to contribute ecological functions to the local biosphere. The native host and nectar plants have evolved relationships with many local forms of life on a grand time scale. Restoring these plants to an area also restores those relationships. Alien plants can stand in and provide some of the ecological functions, but not nearly all. I won’t advocate for the complete removal of all non-natives from gardens and other home landscaping, and I make concessions in this area myself. Increasing the number and variety of native plants in one’s yard, though, is a noble goal and a butterfly garden provides an excellent framework for doing so.