Butterfly Conservation and Butterfly Gardening

butterflies

What a butterfly is

butterfly wing scales

The insect order Lepidoptera consists of butterflies, skippers and moths. The name refers to the tiny scales covering the adult insect's wings.

  • An estimated 150 butterflies and skippers, plus 1000's of moths exist in Minnesota.
  • 15 Minnesota butterflies are listed as endangered, threatened or special concern.
  • 10 of these 15 butterflies depend on prairie habitat.
  • 8 of these 15 butterflies are likely extinct in Minnesota.

 

regal fritillary
Regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia) listed of special concern.
photo: Sarah Bailey, Wikimedia

Threats to butterflies

Threats to butterflies include:

 

Many butterflies rely on prairie habitats.  So if we can increase native prairie habitat in urban and rural areas, the butterflies and also birds will come along with it.  Good butterfly habitat provides plants for all life stages with three different plant types:

  • Host plants (for egg laying & caterpillar food).
  • Nectar plants (food for adult butterflies).
  • Protected areas (such as tall grasses and shrubs to pupate, rest, hide from predation, and overwinter).  

 

Pesticide effects on butterflies

monarch cropped
Monarch (Danaus plexippus), photo: L. Schneider

One of the most important conservation decisions we can make is to avoid the use of pesticides.

Instead, accept some plant damage, build biodiversity, and soil health for natural pest control. If pesticides are necessary, use more benign spot treatments and alternative control methods such as oils, soaps, and microbial insecticides such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Remember that oils and soaps still kill caterpillars if sprayed directly on them and caterpillars also will die if they feed on plants treated with a Bt formulation that is toxic to them.

Most butterfly species, such as the Tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), lay only a few eggs at a time. This low level of insect population will not kill shrubs or trees. However, Black swallowtail (Papilionidae: Papilio polyxenes) larvae, for example, can completely consume herbaceous plants such as dill. To avoid killing a beautiful guest, you should be sure of your identification of an insect before using any pesticide.  Read more here . . .

butterfly garden
Butterflies left to right: Great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele), Clouded sulpher (Colias philodice), Monarch (Danaus plexippus), Monarch pupae.
photo: Laurie Schneider

Residential development, commercial agriculture, pesticide use and climate change is destroying natural wildlife habitat. Where ever possible, we need to encourage habitat restoration in order to encourage butterfly and songbird populations.

Butterfly gardening is one positive step in that direction. Butterfly gardening can be easy, and as simple as providing the appropriate variety of host plants for larval (caterpillar) growth and adult (butterfly) feeding. Plants used in butterfly gardening include native plants and grasses as well as horticultural heirlooms of annuals and perennials. Different species of butterflies sip nectar from flowers on specific types of plants. They also search for specific species of plants upon which to lay their eggs and find shelter from weather and predators in grasses. Caterpillars feed on their host plants for their entire life cycle.  

Butterflies by Karl Foord, University of Minnesota

Magnificent monarchs by Karl Foord, University of Minnesota


 

Annual and perennial plants for butterfly garden (click for full pdf list)

Some plants, shrubs or trees produce nectar AND pollen, others only produce one or the other.  Some plants and trees are also host plants for larvae and others are not.  Remember to source plants and trees that have NOT been treated with pesticides.  Pesticides harm butterflies, moths, pollinators and other non-target beneficial insects.

Common Name

Scientific Name

Flower Color

Nectar

Host

American marigold

Tagetes erecta

Yellow

Nectar

Host

American vetch

Vicia

Purple

Nectar

Host

Anise hyssop

Hyssopus officinalis

Purple

Nectar

 

Autumn joy sedum

Hylotelephium telephium

Pink

Nectar

Host

Black-eyed susan

Rudbeckia hirta

Yellow

Nectar

 

Blanketflower

Gaillardia aristate

Yellow/orange/red

Nectar

Host

Bottle gentian

Gentiana andrewsii

Blue

Nectar

 

Butterfly weed

Asclepias tuberosa

orange

Nectar

 

Calendula

Calendula officinalis

Yellow

Nectar

 

Common boneset

Eupatorium perfoliatum

White

Nectar

 

Common evening primose

Oenothera biennis

Yellow

Nectar

 

Common milkweed

Asclepias syriaca

Pink

Nectar

Host

Dill

Anethum graveolens

Yellow

 

Host

Eastern purple coneflower

Echinacea purpurea

Pink/purple

Nectar

Host

Silver pussytoes

Antennaira argentea

White

 

Host

Field thistle

Cirsium discolor

Pink/purple

Nectar

Host

Fireweed

Epilobium angustifolium

Pink/purple

Nectar

 

Golden alexander

Zizia aurea

Yellow

Nectar

Host

Hoary vervain

Verbena stricta

Purple

Nectar

Host

Hollyhock

Alcea rosea

Pink-red-white varieties

Nectar

 

Lance leaved goldenrod

Euthamia graminifolia

Yellow

Nectar

 

Maximilian sunflower

Helianthus maximiliana

Yellow

Nectar

Host

Meadow blazing star

Liatris ligulistylis

Purple

Nectar

Host

Mexican sunflower

Tithonia rotundifolia

Yellow

Nectar

 

Milkweeds

Genus: Asclepias

Pink/purple/orange

Nectar

Host

Mountain mint

Pycnanthemum virginioanum

White/purple

Nectar

 

Nasturtium

Tropaeloum majus

Orange/red

Nectar

Host

New England aster

Symphyotrichum novae-angliae

Pink/purple

Nectar

Host

Parsley

Petroselinum crispum

Green

 

Host

Purple coneflower

Echinacea purpurea

Pink/purple

Nectar

 

Rough blazing star

Liatris aspera

Purple

Nectar

 

Sawtooth sunflower

Helianthus grosseserratus

Yellow

Nectar

 

Show sunflower

Helianthus laetiflorus

Yellow

Nectar

 

Showy goldenrod

Solidago speciose

Yellow

Nectar

 

Smooth oxeye

Heliopsis helianthoides

Yellow

Nectar

 

Spotted bee balm

Monarda punctate

White/pink/yellow

Nectar

 

Spotted joe pye weed

Eutrochium maculatum

Pink

Nectar

 

Stiff goldenrod

Oligoneuron rigidum

Yellow

Nectar

 

Swamp thistle

Cirsium muticum

Pink/purple

Nectar

Host

Tickseed Sunflower

Bidens aristosa

Yellow

Nectar

 

Verbena

Verbena spp.

Purple

Nectar

 

Violets

Viola spp.

Purple

Nectar

Host

Wild bergamot

Monarda fistulosa

Purple

Nectar

 

Wild lupine

Lupinus perennis

Blue

Nectar

Host

Zinnia

Zinnis elegans

Pink-yellow varieties

Nectar