To Help Butterflies: Cater to Caterpillars!

Larvae are pickier eaters than nectar-sipping adults. Give monarchs and other species a boost by planting their favorite foods.

  • Kelly Senser
  • May 12, 2010

MY FAMILY HOSTED a Labor Day picnic last year, but it wasn’t just neighbors who turned out for the feast. That afternoon we spotted monarch caterpillars munching on common milkweed plants in our garden. In the weeks that followed, we delighted in watching them grow, pupate and emerge from their chrysalides as adults.

I’d like to think that these butterflies migrated safely to their winter home in Mexico, but even if they did, they were part of the smallest overwintering monarch population ever, says Monarch Watch director Chip Taylor, who attributes the low number in large part to habitat loss. A trio of harsh winter storms may have further reduced the group’s size by at least half, according to scientists’ estimates.

Monarch Recovery

While Taylor suspects it may take several years for the species to rebound, you can play a part in the monarch’s recovery if you live in an area where the insect breeds. “Having caterpillar plants in your garden means butterflies are more likely to linger and explore possible sites to lay eggs,” says the staff at Monarch Watch. Provide milkweeds for monarch larvae, which depend on these plants for nourishment.

Host Plants

In general, caterpillars of all kinds are pickier eaters than nectar-feeding adults. Female butterflies lay eggs on plant species that their offspring will eat, so including favored host plants in your habitat helps ensure reproductive success. If you fancy zebra swallowtails, for instance, plant pawpaws. For gulf fritillaries, grow maypops or other passionvines.

Maintaining an inviting space for these important pollinators also includes avoiding pesticides and herbicides, which kill not only target species but also beneficial insects and the foods they rely on.

See National Wildlife Federation’s “Attract Butterflies” tips sheet (PDF) for a list of common butterflies and the plants their caterpillars eat.  


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