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Io moth Alfalfa butterfly

Gardening for Moths and Butterflies


Together the moths and butterflies constitute the insect family Lepidoptera. Sometimes called "living jewels" and "flying flowers" these often brightly colored, easily observed creatures are our most admired and among the best known of our insects. Our particular region is home to around 165 named species of butterflies and well over 3000 species of moths. But in spite of their ubiquity and the diligence of collectors and scholars even these most conspicuous members of the insect family are still, in many ways, little known and poorly understood.

While professional entomologists don't usually differentiate between moths and butterflies the two names are generally given respectively to those lepidopterans who possess hairy bodies, elaborate antennae, spin silken cocoons and fly at night (moths); and those with smooth bodies, simple antennae, who form chrysalises and fly during the day (butterflies). And while there are of course exceptions to these guidelines they generally hold true for the vast majority of the Lepidopterans found in our area.

Life Cycle

Monarch larva
Monarch caterpillar
Photo copyright © 2003 Jim Jung
and licensors. All rights reserved

Moths and butterflies, though they differ in a number of external characteristics, share a similar life cycle. Both begin life as an egg laid on a specific host plant. The hatching egg opens to release a small crawling wingless larva - the caterpillar - which spends nearly its whole waking life eating the leaves of its particular host plant. The choice of plant for the caterpillar is critical. Moth and butterfly caterpillars have extremely narrow dietary requirements and are able to feed successfully on only a very limited number of species - a point which cannot be stressed too much.

After feeding for a given period of time which varies by species the caterpillar enters a resting stage.

Typical cocoon
Southern Illinois cocoon
Typical chrysalis
Monarch chrysalis
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Moth larvae spin a silken cocoon; butterfly larvae shed their skin and form a chrysalis. In both cases the larvae become pupae - the stage where the small, wormlike herbivore dissolves internally and rearranges itself (called metamorphosis) into its adult form - the moth or butterfly.

Monarch Emerging
Monarch emerging from chrysalis
Photo copyright © 2003 Jim Jung
and licensors. All rights reserved

After a suitable interval (which varies depending on season and species) the transformed larvae emerges from its cocoon or chrysalis, spreads and dries its wings and flies off into the world where it finds a partner, mates and then dies. Most adult lepidopterans measure their lifespans in days, or at most, weeks - which is ironic since it can, in some instances, take nearly a year to reach the final adult form.

Both moths and butterflies play important and critical roles in their environment. As adults they participate in the pollination of flowering plants and are a significant food source for a large number of birds, bats and other insects. As larvae they play a major role in controlling and limiting plant growth since they are far and away the most important herbivores in the temperate zone. They almost certainly exceed in bodily mass all other plant predators combined. Because of their large numbers they are also a critical food source for a large number of predators. Many of our most colorful and melodious neotropical songbirds rely on them for all, or a significant fraction, of their food. Top

Gardening for Lepidoptera

Luna Moth
Luna Moth
Photo copyright © Jim Jung and licensors.
All rights reserved

But despite their key role in nearly every ecosystem in our area their populations have been in steady decline. In some areas of the country (though not ours, thankfully) many species are locally extinct due in equal measure to habitat modification and indiscriminate pesticide use. However even in our region populations are still declining. In response to this trend home gardeners around the world are responding by attempting to plant nectar and larval food plants in their gardens to encourage and promote these interesting and showy insects.

Planting for butterflies is a relatively easy and straightforward exercise. In fact, with proper planting choices one can choose which species to propagate because while adults feed on a large number of flowering plants the larvae as noted above are limited to a very few species. By planting the larval food plants one can attract and propagate individual species.

Tiger Swallowtail (a pale one)
Tiger Swallowtail
Photo Copyright © 2003 Naturenotes.
All rights reserved

In planting a butterfly garden variety and species complexity determines the numbers and kinds of butterflies one will attract. Since not all species prefer exactly the same environmental parameters the most successful butterfly gardens have a mix of sunny and shady areas to provide the maximum number of choices available to varying species.

A butterfly garden should be situated in a well lit area for two reasons: it provides the greatest number of options for the gardener regarding plant species that can be grown, and it provides the cold-blooded butterflies life-giving warmth. As for soil, the more fertile it is the better since it gives the gardener greater flexibility in choice for plant selection.

If there is one rule that is ironclad for the well-tended butterfly garden its that pesticides should never, under any circumstances, be used there. Should you spot "worms" on your butterfly plants resist the temptation to spray them with pesticides. Believe it or not one gardener I know panicked at the appearance of "worms" on her host plants and promptly killed most of the larva in her butterfly garden. If you're farming butterflies, holes in your leaves, half-eaten blossoms, and caterpillars are the whole point of the exercise.

If your first year's efforts bring only limited numbers of butterflies to your garden don't get discouraged! It takes time for butterfly populations to build up. Be patient and remember - if you build it they will come!

Sphinx moth
Sphinx Moth feeding on bee balm
Photo Copyright © 2003 Jim Jung and licensors.
All rights reserved

Below is a list of species favored by adult butterflies and their larva. With proper planning and planting a butterfly garden can be as beautiful as any flowerbed devoted to the usual alien species available at your local nursery. In addition, many nurseries are now carrying species specifically for butterfly gardens. So ask for butterfly plants on your next visit. Top

Nectar Plants for Adult Butterflies, Moths
(and Hummingbirds)

Ageratum, Aster, Bee Balm, Buckwheat. Butterfly Bush (Buddleia), Butterfly Weed, Candytuft, Canna, Clover, Columbine, Coreopsis, Coleus, Cosmos, Daisy, Dianthus, Elderberry, Fuschia, Goldenrod, Impatiens, Jimsonweed, Joe-Pye-Weed, Lantana, Lilac, Lobelia, Marigold, Mexican Sunflower, Phlox, Primrose, Salvia, Scabiosa, Sedum, Sweet Alyssum, Thistle, Verbena, Wild Bergamot, Yarrow, Zinnia. Top

Food Plants for Common Butterfly Larvae

Alfalfa Alfalfa Butterfly
Beans Gray Hairstreak
Carrots Black Swallowtail
Cassia Sleepy Orange
Clover Sulphur Butterfly
Elm Mourning Cloak
Hawthorn Red-Spotted Purple
Hibiscus Gray Hairstreak
Hickory Hickory Horned Devil
Hollyhock Painted Lady
Mallow Painted Lady
Milkweed Monarch
Mustard White
Nasturtium Cabbage Butterfly
Nettle Comma, Question Mark
Parsley Black Swallowtail
Gulf Fritillary
Pawpaw Zebra Swallowtail
Spicebush Spicebush Swallowtail
Thistle Painted Lady
Violet Fritillaries
Willow Viceroy
American Copper
American Copper feeding on daisy

Atlantis Fritillary
Atlantis Fritillary
Photos Copyright © 2003 Jim Jung and licensors.
All rights reserved
Clouded Sulphur feeding
Clouded Sulphur
Photo Copyright © 2003 Jim Jung and licensors. All rights reserved

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The information on this page is tailored to Southern Illinois, Southwest Indiana, Western Kentucky, and Southeast Missouri

Copyright © 2003 Jim Jung
Some images on this page Copyright © 2003