Three possible answers to this vexing mystery.

By Steve Bender
August 11, 2020
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Like all decent individuals, you love butterflies. That’s why you filled your garden this spring with nectar-laden plants to attract these winged beauties – flowers like butterfly bush, butterfly weed, Joe-pye weed, lantana, pentas, zinnias, salvias, asters, blazing star, goldenrod, and summer phlox. But few of your invited guests ever showed up at the table. How come?

There are several possibilities, only one of which could possibly count as a moral lapse on your part. Let’s discuss.

No Food for the Kids

It isn’t enough to provide nectar sources for adult butterflies. Without food for their caterpillars, there won’t be a next generation of adults. Caterpillars don’t drink nectar. They eat foliage from very specific plants, including trees, shrubs, herbs, vines, and common weeds. For example, monarch butterfly caterpillars feed only on plants in the milkweed family, such as common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Tiger swallowtail larvae eat leaves of black cherry (Prunus serotina), tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), and maples (Acer sp.). Those of black swallowtails chow down on parsley, dill, and carrot. Spicebush swallowtails gobble spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum). Zebra swallowtails munch on pawpaw (Asimina triloba). Fritillary larvae dine on violets and passion vine (Passiflora sp.). Painted ladies hold out for hollyhock, mallow, and thistle. Buckeyes snack on lawn weeds like plantain and cudweed.

Thus, if your yard and those around you look like a manicured fairway at Augusta National golf course, it’s safe to say butterfly larvae will be scarce. No kids mean no grownups. The more native plants growing in the landscape around you, the more butterflies you’ll see.

Maybe They’re Still on the Way

Not all butterflies hang around where they were born. Some migrate as the seasons progress to take advantage of flowers just opening up and also favorable weather. Monarch butterflies that fly in the millions from the U.S. heartland to southwestern Mexico each year are the most famous migrators. (For everything you could ever want to know about this phenomenon, read this book: The Monarch – Saving Our Most Beloved Butterfly by my friend, Kylee Baumle.) However, plenty of others migrate as well, including the Gulf fritillary, red admiral, cloudless sulfur, buckeye, and painted lady. Thus, if the butterfly show has been meager so far, be patient and they’ll hopefully appear.

Knock Off the Spraying

Patience won’t do much good if you kill them when they arrive. I’m appalled at how many people fog their yards with insecticide every summer to kill mosquitoes. These long-lasting, indiscriminate pesticides kill many more beneficial bugs (and pollinators) than annoying mosquitoes. If you fog your yard, say goodbye to butterflies, moths, fireflies, honeybees, praying mantises, and ladybugs. Because the fog goes any way the wind blows, you’ll likely turn your neighbor’s yard into a dead-zone too. Grumpy says handle mosquitoes as we always have. Cover exposed skin or apply insect repellent. The world isn’t all about you.