While watching a couple hawks the other day, something smaller flew past me – a tiger swallowtail butterfly. Is it possible it is already that time of year? Later on, while walking along the road, I saw two more. This time they were on the ground, steadfastly holding their place along the roadside, regardless of how close I stalked them. They were focused on the ground – they were puddling.
Puddling is a behavior many butterflies (and a few moths) engage in. Puddling sites can be any of a number of places: mud, dung, fermenting fruit, carrion, urine. The key is the chemical make-up of the site, for these butterflies are looking for something specific: salt (sodium) and minerals. The two I saw the other day were benefiting from the road salt that no doubt saturated the sandy shoulder of the road.
Mostly when we think of butterflies, delicate, colorful creatures come to mind, like flower petals drifting on a gentle summer breeze. We picture them flitting from flower to flower, sipping nectar here, sipping nectar there. And while nectar sipping is certainly part of a butterfly’s repertoire, it isn’t necessarily enough.
Flower nectar is a high-sugar liquid that provides limited nutrition to those who partake. If all you are looking for is quick energy, it might be enough, but butterflies have something else on their minds. They need to reproduce, and let’s face it, sugar water isn’t going to give you everything you need to produce viable offspring.
So off to a puddling site the butterflies flutter. Most of the puddlers are males, who ingest the salts, minerals and amino acids that the liquefied source provides. These nutrients are then stored in the sperm. When the time comes to mate, the male passes these goodies along to the female as a nuptial gift in his spermatophore. The female is now in possession of the “extra boost”, which she then passes along to her eggs. Eggs that receive this extra nutrient gift have a greater chance of success than those that do not.
The first time I saw puddling butterflies, I was a child walking along a dirt road with my grandmother. Along the way we passed a puddle that was loaded with small yellow sulfur butterflies. The looked like little sailboats, rocking gently from side to side as the wind caught their folded wings. It was enchanting.
Years later, I attended a butterfly program at which the presenter told us the best way to attract butterflies to your property was by putting out carcasses (roadkill being a good source) and piles of manure. This wasn’t quite as enchanting.
I recently read that if a butterfly cannot find a moist site, it will regurgitate onto the soil and then drink, hopefully gaining some nutrients that dissolved in the, uh, saliva. Also not quite so enchanting, but any port in a storm, eh?
While most of us are not likely to schlep a flattened rabbit home to sling into the back yard on the off-chance the butterflies might like it, there are plenty of other ways we can provide puddling opportunities. We can put out trays of fruit that has seen better days (beware, though, for it will also attract bees). We can put out shallow basins of water into which we’ve mixed a pinch or two of salt. We can keep a patch of lawn or garden free of plants and keep it well-watered.
Here at the VIC we sort of combine these. We take a bird bath and fill it with sand. To this we add some water, just enough to keep the sand moist. Then we add some stale beer, or maybe some juice and a pinch of salt. Again, it may attract bees, but that’s okay because this artificial puddling site is located in our butterfly garden, which is full of plants and flowers that butterflies and bees alike enjoy. Some plants are ideal for nectaring, while others are host plants for larvae. The addition of a puddling site makes the garden an all-around great place to watch butterflies and observe butterfly behavior.
As the seasons progress, keep your eyes peeled for butterflies in low, damp areas. Tiger swallowtails are champion puddlers, but don’t be surprised if you see some sulfurs or even a cabbage white or two. The imbibers will be so engrossed in their meals that you can sneak up quite close for a good look. Bring your binoculars along and a child. This is a great experience to share as you watch the insects uncoil their long tongues and push them into the substrate to drink. Then go home, make a fruit smoothie, stick in a straw and share with the child as you pretend to be butterflies.