Most of us are familiar with monarch butterflies, those stunning Hallowe’en-colored insects that make phenomenal migration flights from the northern parts of North American to the hidden forests in Mexico. But if you mention painted ladies, people are more likely to think of old Victorian houses with bright new paint jobs, or women with questionable reputations, than they are butterflies. Likewise, thanks to ads for a popular sleeping remedy, luna moths are easily recognized by much of the American population, while Isabella moths remain mostly unknown (woolly bear caterpillars turn into Isabella moths).
There is an easy solution to our lack of Lepidopteran knowledge. Actually, there are two solutions. First, you can visit a butterfly garden/house/exhibit, like the one at the Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center, or the Butterfly Conservatory in Oneonta (southern NY). Your second option is to establish a garden of your own for butterflies and moths. With the latter solution, you can set about learning your butterflies and moths at your own pace, and take entire seasons to do it!
Making a butterfly/moth garden is fairly easy. Your first step is to find out what plants these insects enjoy. Be sure to look at the dietary preferences of both the adult and the juvenile forms, for they eat vastly different things; some adults lack mouthparts altogether and never eat at all. Adults that do feed are looking for nectar, sipping this ambrosial fluid from long tube-like flowers. The larvae, on the other hand, are chewers – no sipping for them. These caterpillars are looking for leaves to munch, often very specific leaves (think monarchs and milkweed). Here is a partial list of butterflies in our area, and their preferences, to get you started:
Black Swallowtail: Caterpillar Food – parsley family plants (wild and cultivated): carrot, dill, parsley, parsnip, yarrow; Adult Food – aster, Joe Pye weed, alfalfa
Comma: Caterpillar Food – elm, hops, nettles; Adult Food – butterfly bush, dandelions
Common Wood Nymph: Caterpillar Food – purpletop grass; Adult Food – purple coneflower
Common/Clouded Sulpher: Caterpillar Food – clover, alfalfa; Adult Food – goldenrod, marigold
Great Spangled Fritillary: Caterpillar Food – violets; Adult Food – milkweed, ironweed
Mourning Cloak: Caterpillar Food -willow, birch, aspen, maple, elm, wild rose; Adult Food -milkweed, dogbane, Shasta daisy
Painted Lady: Caterpillar Food – thistles, burdock, daisy; Adult Food – aster, goldenrod, privet, mallow
Pearl Crescent: Caterpillar Food – aster; Adult Food – dogbane
Red Admiral: Caterpillar Food – nettles, false nettles; Adult Food – stonecrop, clover, aster, dandelion, goldenrod, mallow
Tiger Swallowtail: Caterpillar Food – aspen, cherry, birch; Adult Food – Joe Pye weed, buddleia
White Admiral: Caterpillar Food – birch, willow, poplar, honeysuckle; Adult Food – aphid honeydew, bramble blossom
How about moths? We tend to ignore moths, possibly because they tend to be nocturnal, or maybe because we associate moths with “bad” things, like gypsy moths defoliating forests. Still, there are many native moths, and lots of them are quite lovely (such as the luna). Like the butterflies, some have no mouthparts; they live only to breed and have a very short time in which to do so. Nevertheless, there are some that do feed, and they often do so at night, so moth gardens are those that have many pale flowers that remain open after hours. Some good moth nectaring plants include heliotrope, four o’clocks, flowering tobacco (night flowering tobacco is likely better than the red day-time blooming varieties), petunias, fireweed, dwarf blue gentian, dame’s rocket (not native and can be invasive – plant with care), bergamots, evening primrose, and weigelia.
That takes care of adult moths, but if there’s no food for the larvae, you won’t have adults, not matter how attractive your garden is. Fortunately, our native moths can usually find native foods for their larvae in the woods and fields around your home. For example, the waved sphinx moth’s larva feeds mostly on ash leaves, but will also eat lilac and privet; the cecropia moth’s larva feeds on a variety of tree leaves, including cherry, elderberry, apple, maple, birch and willow.
But plants aren’t the end of the tale. One of the great attractants for butterflies and moths is a source of salts and minerals. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. You could put out a tray with an assortment of rotting fruits – that’ll bring in many butterfly/moth species. It will also bring in yellow jackets and possibly even bears. You could keep a pile of manure handy, or a rotting carcass, but not everyone wants these delicacies decorating their yards, despite the numbers of butterflies they attract. Slightly damp mud puddles will also draw in the butterflies, but mud puddles with the right mix of salts and minerals can be difficult to come by. As an alternative, you can create your own Butterfly Bar. Take a bird bath and fill it with sand. Add to the sand some water, beer and fruit juice. Keep the sand damp. This, like the tray of rotting fruit, is sure to bring in the lepidopteras, like moths to a flame.
Maybe you like the idea of looking for moths, but you don’t want to attract the bees and bears to your yard. What can you do? Here are a couple tried and true moth attracting activities. One: simply hanging a sheet out at night and shine a black (UV) light on it. The moths will come flocking in to land on the sheet. The other, and my personal favorite, is to set up a sugaring station. For this you’ll need beer, brown sugar, and a very ripe banana (although a variety of recipes exist on-line). Mash ‘em all together in a bucket and go out in the evening, armed with a large paint brush. Slather the mixture on the side of a tree or six. Come back later on in the night, with a flashlight, and see who has shown up to feed on the solution.
Now that you have your garden(s) and assorted feeding station(s), the only other thing you will need is a field guide to identify your flighty visitors. A great book for beginners is the Golden Guide Butterflies and Moths. From there you can move on to Butterflies through Binoculars, and really advanced lepidopteran fans can use James A. Scott’s Butterflies of North America, a weighty tome that can be as confounding as it is useful – not for the faint of heart.
You are now all set for a summer of butterfly and moth fun. With no stingers or bites, butterflies are insects that everyone can enjoy. What a wonderful way to get yourself and your family outside this summer.