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Landscaping to Attract Butterflies, Moths and Skippers

Butterflies, Moths, and Skippers

Butterflies, moths, and skippers are some of the most beautiful of all insects. Their striking appearance adds both color and activity to the most pleasing of landscapes. They may also be observed more easily and closely than other species of wildlife. Moths expand the enjoyment time of your garden because they are active primarily during the night, while butterflies and skippers are active during the day.

 

Butterflies, skippers, and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera. Virtually all members of this order are instrumental in pollinating plants, some specific to a single plant species. Lepidopterans should be conserved and managed because they are an essential component of both the animal food chain and the reproductive process of plants. Locally, many songbirds, reptiles, and amphibians depend upon these insects to survive. The best way to conserve Lepidopterans is to provide suitable habitats. This publication was developed to provide property owners or tenants the information necessary to create these habitats with the greatest ease.

 

Lepidopteran Physical Characteristics

A key method of determining Lepidopteran identity is by observing antenna shape. A butterfly will have knobby or clubbed looking antennae while a moth’s antennae will be feathery, plumed, or threadlike. The antennae of the skipper will appear to be clubbed, yet with a feathery “hook” at the end. The skipper appears to be an intermediate group between the butterfly and moth. Remember, not all moths are active only at night. The Hummingbird Sphinx moth, for example, feeds during the day, and from a distance, looks and sounds like a hummingbird.

 

Antenna shapes

 

Antenna shapes.

 

 

 

 

 

A butterfly on a flower

 

Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) Photo by Ron Masters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lepidopterans are known for their ability to undergo metamorphosis — a change in form and function. This change occurs through the completion of four stages. First, the butterfly begins as a fertilized egg. It is laid inconspicuously in a group or singly, usually under a leaf, around a stem, or in leaf litter. Depending upon environmental conditions, the egg will hatch in about five to ten days. The next stage is the larval or caterpillar stage. During this time, the caterpillar feeds on plant material to gain enough energy reserves to sustain itself through the next stage of development. Next, the pupa or chrysalis stage occurs when the caterpillar finds a suitable plant on which to weave a small silk patch for attachment and complete growth of a pupal skin.


The chrysalis matures in about two weeks. At that time, the adult butterfly emerges with wet, folded wings. After drying, the wings are ready for flight. The adult lifespan, barring predation, is about six days for males and nine days for females. Silk moths such as the beautiful Luna moth, do not feed as adults. Rather, their sole function as adults is to find partners and mate.

 

Lepidopterans display their most noticeable attributes by reflecting light. Light is reflected by the thousands of tiny scales that cover their four wings. Each scale grows from a single cell and has several important functions. Scales rub off easily, aiding the butterfly in escape from predators. Scales also enable the butterfly to absorb light, which is essential for maintaining body temperature. Some scales, usually in males, produce scents during courtship. Finally, scales produce the brilliant or sometimes dull colors of butterflies and moths. The colors can be the result of pigmentation or scale structure. Often, scales are shaped like small prisms that diffract light into iridescent colors. Some scales that appear to be white are actually hollow and clear, allowing light to be reflected and scattered. Structurally created colors are enhanced by fluttering of the wings, which continually changes both the angle of light and intensity of reflection.

 

Lepidopteran wings display some colors of light beyond the human range of visual perception. Ultraviolet rays are crucial for survival because they guide feeding and reproductive behavior. Lepidopterans use ultraviolet rays as visual cues to locate nectar in flowering plants. Unseen to humans, some blossoms have “directions” to nectar painted in ultraviolet light upon the petals of the flower. Males use ultraviolet light during courtship by reflecting it from their rapidly fluttering wings. This display action produces a kaleidoscope effect intended to catch the attention of a nearby female.

 

Lepidopterans are adept at detecting plants with suitable nectar in two ways, other than visually. First, they use their antennae, which serve as the primary olfactory receptor, to sample the essence of a plant. Second, on some female butterflies, their two front legs have adapted for the purpose of “tasting” a plant to determine if it is the correct species on which to lay eggs.

 

Some species of butterflies exhibit cryptic, or camouflaging colors. Moths, for instance, may be dull across all body surfaces while some butterflies have only a dull appearance on the underside of their wings. In this instance, the brilliant colors above function to communicate with other butterflies while the plain sides function to hide them from predators. Some butterflies mimic color patterns of poisonous butterflies, and others may have false antennae on the posterior end of their body, giving them a higher chance of surviving a “frontal” predator attack.

 

Grey moth

 

 

Luna Moth (Actias luna). Photo by Mike Masters,

 

 

 

 

 

Orange butterfly on the ground.

 

 

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), puddling. Photo by Ron Masters.

 

 

 

 

Orange butterfly on a purple flower.

 

 

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Photo by Stephanie Smith

 

 

 

 

Black butterfly on a purple shirt sleeve

 

 

Black Swallowtail (Papilio troilus). Photo by Ron Masters

 

 

 

 

 

Behavior

In addition to interesting physical characteristics, Lepidopterans also exhibit several unique behavioral characteristics, one of which is puddling. This occurs when many butterflies or moths gather around a puddle of water or a damp area from which water has evaporated and created a concentration of minerals that they need. Sodium is the primary attractant. For this reason they can be seen gathering on carrion, animal feces, urination sites, and old campfires. Males exhibit this behavior more than females because they require additional sodium for reproduction.


Another behavior exhibited by Lepidopterans is that of courting. Males, while patrolling or perching, are drawn to females by detection of their movement and pheromones. When they have located a potential mate, males begin fluttering their wings conspicuously and displaying their ultraviolet colors.

 

Butterflies also bask in the bright sun because they cannot fly with a body temperature below 85°F. Flight time affects feeding, mating, and egg laying productivity. Therefore, they must orient their wings, often colored black near the body for heat absorption, toward the sun. Because moths cannot undertake this procedure during night, they have adopted the practice of shivering in order to warm their bodies enough to fly.

 

Planning the Landscape

Several key elements must be provided for success in the construction of your butterfly garden. Growing nectar plants is the first essential component. These are a primary food source for adults, and without them your garden will not attract nearly as many Lepidopterans. Nectar plants should be planted in large groups according to color. Butterflies recognize the blooms more quickly this way. Also, it is wise to select nectar plants that bloom over several seasons, so that a food source is provided over a longer period of time, increasing feeding activity and your observing opportunity. When planting nectar plants, provide plants of different height. Not only will your flower garden look more organized, it will give both you and the butterflies a wider visual picture of the colorful blossoms.

 

The second essential component to provide is plants for Lepidopteran larvae. This will also keep the adults in your area. However, most larvae do not feed on the same plants as adults; therefore you must provide appropriate vegetation for females to lay their eggs upon. This is an excellent way to incorporate additional native plants into your landscaping theme, because most larval-food plants are native plants. You should note that many larval-food plants are unsuitable for a showy flower border and would serve better as a large collection in a separate area of your yard.

 

Attracting Lepidopterans (butterflies, moths, and skippers) to your garden

A successful butterfly garden will have:

  • A mixture of perennials and annuals, including native plants.
  • Nectar plants (such as marigolds, petunias, and asters).
  • Plants for larvae (such as tomatoes and herbs).
  • A sunny location.
  • Shelter from the wind.
  • Other features, such as mud puddles or fruit, to attract Lepidopterans.
  • Few insecticides and no bugzappers.

 

One possibility is to maintain an herb garden. Herbs such as dill, fennel, parsley, and chives provide excellent food for larvae and produce enough foliage to be harvested for your kitchen. Some vegetable crops such as tomatoes, cabbage, and broccoli are larval food plants. Consider sacrificing some of these from your garden for your Lepidopteran visitors. Clover, which is both a nectar and larval-food plant, may occur in your yard already. When seeded to an area that is not mowed, clover will become a beautiful flowering addition to your garden. Many colorful species are now available at your garden center.


In order to have a successful butterfly garden, you must locate your plantings in a sunny location. This is important for both plants and butterflies. Most blooming plants need exposure to lots of sun to undergo enough photosynthesis to maintain nectar output. Also, butterflies need an open, sheltered area for basking in the sun in order to raise their body temperatures enough to fly. Egg development is also inhibited by cooler temperatures.

 

Shelter is another essential ingredient for your garden. Taller plants and delicate butterflies need protection from strong gusts of wind. Cooling winds lower the body temperature of butterflies and limit blooming time of flowering plants. Shelter can be wind breaks in the form of deciduous plants, conifers, or even heat absorbing rock fences. Vining plants on fences can serve a dual role as both shelter and a food source when species such as blackberries, Dutchman’s pipe, and Japanese honeysuckle are planted. Regardless of the type of shelter used, it should be located on the north and west sides of your garden to block the colder winds.

 

Components other than plants can be used to attract Lepidopterans to your yard. Try using other attractants such as mud puddles, wet sand, fruit, sap, manure, or even carrion. There are also tried and true moth “brews” that can be made from simple ingredients and painted on tree trunks to allow you to get a closer look at the often unseen night flying moths. This technique is called “sugaring.” Most recipes simply consist of mashed, fermented fruit, yeast, and alcohol. Mashed bananas and a small amount of stale beer alone will work extremely well. When trying to observe or photograph moths at night, keep in mind that they are usually inactive on full moon evenings yet prefer hot, humid nights before a storm. Also, moths seem to have an affinity for white flowers and those emitting their fragrances at night. Intensely bright lights will drive them away whereas a simple flashlight filtered with a red, yellow, or even a paper-towel lens will not disturb them very much. Some moths remain relatively active through November.

 

When trying to attract insects to your yard, the broadscale use of insecticides is inappropriate. Additionally, bugzappers, even though they are intended to control mosquitoes, will mainly attract and destroy male moths. Therefore, these control measures should not be a part of your landscaping plan. As an alternative control measure, pheromone traps are now available, and will successfully remove the males of many unwanted pests from your yard.

 

When landscaping to attract Lepidopterans, keep in mind these principles for formulating your garden plan. Be sure to mix perennials and annuals. Annuals bloom for one season only and may have delayed blooming if grown from seed. Perennials, however, already have established roots and tend to bloom within a predictable time frame. Some perennials may be annuals if they cannot survive the winter temperatures in your area. Winter mulching may provide the extra protection that they need from the cold. Use native plants whenever possible because the Lepidopterans are already familiar with these species and have had success with them in the past. In fact, butterfly declines are a direct result of loss of prime habitat that consists of native plant species. Pollination of many native plant species requires specific adult Lepidopterans for the successful reproduction of that species. Native plants are also beautiful, winter hardy, resistant to disease, low maintenance, and an important part of our regional biodiversity.

 

Symbol Key      
Plant type S = Short
M = Medium
T=Tall
TRE = Tree
SHR = Shrub
VIN = Vine
AN = Annual
BI = Biennial
PR = Perennial
Origin E = Exotic N = Native  
Blooming Season E = Early
M = Middle
L = Late
SP = Spring
SU = Summer
AU = Autumn
WI = Winter
Height/Width FT = Feet    
Hardiness 1-11 = Hardiness Zones    
Sun  F = Full 
S = Shade
P = Partial
ALL = All exposures
 
Moisture  D = Dry
W = Wet
M = Moist
WD = Well drained
 
Soil ALL = Broad Ranges
C = Clayey
L = Loamy
S = Sandy
 
Color BLU = Blue
LAV = Lavender
PIK = Pink
ROS = Rose
WHT = White
BRW = Brown
MAN = Many colors
PUR = Purple
TAN = Tan
YEL = Yellow
GRE = Green
ORE = Orange
RED = Red
VIO = Violet
* = Larval food plant also      

 

Map of Oklahoma showing plant hardiness zones

 

Source: UDSA U.S. Plant Hardiness Zone Map

 

LEPIDOPTERAN-NECTAR ANNUALS

 

Name Plant Type Origin Blooming Season Height Width Hardiness Sun Moisture Soil Color
Anise or Anise-Hyssop
Agastache foeniculum
AN E LSU 3 FT 1 FT 42864 F MD SL BLU
Asters*
Aster spp.
AN N SU 3 FT 3 FT 42863 F MD SL MAN
Black-eyed Susan
Rudbeckia hirta pulcherrima
AN N MSU-MA 3 FT 2 FT 42833 FP M ALL YEL
Begonia
‘Othello’
Begonia semperflorens
AN E ESU-LAU 1.5 FT 1 FT 42803 PF M L RED
Borage
Boago officinalis
AN E SU 3 FT 3 FT 42802 FP MD SL BLU
Canterbury bells
Campanula medium
AN E SU 3 FT 2 FT 42774 FP M SL BLU
Cosmos
Cosmos bipinnatus, ‘Sulphureus’
AN E E-LSU 3 FT 2 FT 42803 F D ALL YEL
Dill*
Anethum graveolens
AN E LSP 3 FT 1 FT 42803 F MD ALL GRE
Flowering tobacco
Nicotiana alata
AN E ESU-EAU 2 FT 2 FT 42834 FP M L WHT
Four O’Clock, Marvel of Peru
Mirabilis jalapa
PR E MSU-MAU 2.5 FT 3 FT 42925 FP M ALL ROS
Geranium, zonal
Pelargonium x hortorum
AN E LSP-MSU 2 FT 2 FT 42803 FP MW L RED
Gladiolus
Gladiolus spp.
AN E SU 3 FT 1 FT 42803 F MD SL MAN
Heliotrope
Heliotropium arborescens
AN E LSP-SU 2 FT 2 FT 42802 FP M SL LAV
Lantana
Lantana camara
AN E E-LSU 10 FT 8 FT 42957 PF M L YEL
Marigold, african*
Tagetes erecta
AN E SU-EAU 3 FT 2 FT 42803 F MD L YEL
Marigold, french*
Tagetes patula
AN E SU-EAU 1.5 FT 2 FT 42803 F MD L YEL
Marigold, pot*
Calendula officinalis
AN E MSP 2 FT 1.5 FT 42926 FP MD L ORE
Mexican sunflower
Tithonia rotundifolia
AN E SU 7 FT 3 FT 42865 F MD L ORE
Nasturtium*
Tropaeolum majus
AN E SU-LAU .5 FT 1 FT 42864 FP MD SL MAN
Parsley*
Petroselinum crispum
AN E SP 1 FT 1 FT 42802 FP M L GRE
Pentas
Pentas lanceolota
AN E SP-AU 1.5 FT 1 FT 42864 FP M L MAN
Petunia
Petunia x hybrida
AN E SU-EAU 1.5 FT 2 FT 42774 FP M SL MAN
Phlox
Phlox spp.
AN, PR N SP-ESU 3 FT 1 FT 42803 F M L MAN
Scarlet star glory
“Cypress Vine”
Quamoclit coccinea
AN N ESU-MAU 8 FT 2 FT 42864 F MD L RED
Scarlet sage, salvia
Salvia splendens
AN E SU 2.5 FT 1 FT 42803 FP MD L RED
Spider flower
Cleome hasslerana
AN E SU 5 FT 4 FT 42803 FP MD L ROS
Sunflower, dwarf*
Helianthus annuus
AN N ESU-EAU 3 FT 1.5 FT 42834 F MD ALL YEL
Sweet pea
Lathyrus odoratus
AN E LSP-MAU 8 FT 8 FT 42864 FP MW L PIK
Sweet marjoram
Origanum marjorana
AN E SU 1 FT 1 FT 42834 FP MD L WHT
Sweet William
Dianthus barbatus
AN E LSP-SU 1.5 FT 1.5 FT 42834 FP MD ALL RED
Touch-me-not, pale
Impatiens balsamina
AN N ESU-AU .5 FT 1 FT 42833 SP WM SL PIK
Touch-me-not, spotted
Spotted jewelweed
Impatiens capensis
AN N ESU 2 FT 1 FT 42803 S WM L PIK
VerbenaVerbena hybrida AN E SP-AU 1 FT 1 FT 42803 F M SL MAN
Winter Savory
Satureja montana
AN E MS-EAU 1 FT 1 FT 42863 FP MD SL WHT
Zinnia
Zinnia elegans
AN E SU-LAU 3 FT 1 FT 42834 FP M L MAN

 

LEPIDOPTERAN-NECTAR BIENNIALS/PERENNIALS

 

 

LEPIDOPTERAN-LARVAL TREES AND SHRUBS

 

Name Plant Type  Origin Blooming Season Height Width Hardiness Sun Moisture Soil Color
Blueberry, “Rabbit-eye”
Vaccinium ashei
SSHR N ESU 10 FT 10 FT 42926 FP M L PIK
Cottonwood
Populus deltoides
TRE N ESP 80 FT 40 FT 42804 F D ALL WHT
Elm, winged
Ulmus alata
TRE N ESP-LAU 50 FT 50 FT 42863 F D ALL GRE
Hackberry
Celtis spp.
STRE N ESP 60 FT 40 FT 42865 F MW L GRE
Leadplant
Amorpha canescens
SSHR N LSU 3 FT 3 FT 42775 F D ALL PUR
Locust, black
Robinia pseudoacacia
STRE N ESP 50 FT 40 FT 42835 FP D ALL WHT
Passion vine
Passiflora incarnata
VIN N SU 20 FT 10 FT 42926 FP MD SL LAV
Tulip tree
Liriodendron tulipifera
TRE N ESU 60 FT 40 FT 42834 FP WM L RED/GRE

 

LEPIDOPTERAN-LARVAL ANNUALS

 

Name  Plant Type Origin Blooming Season Height Width Hardiness Sun Moisture Soil Color
Cabbage, flowering
Brassica oleracea capitata
AN E SP 1 FT 1 FT 42775 F M SL MAN
Balsam, white
Gnaphalium obtusifolium
AN N LSU 3 FT 3 FT 42863 F D SL WHT
Beans
Phaseolus spp.
AN E ESU 7 FT 2 FT 42802 F M L WHT
Broccoli
Brassica oleracea italica
AN E SP 3 FT 2 FT 42775 F M SL GRE
Everlasting, cudweed
Gnaphalium purpureum
AN N LS-EAU 1.5 FT 1.5 FT 42866 F D SL PUR
Mallow tree
Malva lavantera thuringiaca
AN E SU 5 FT 3 FT 42863 F MD ALL ROS
Smartweed
Polygonum spp.
AN N SU-AU 2 FT 2 FT 42833 F M CL PIK
Sneezeweed
Helenium spp.
AN N SU-EAU 2 FT 2 FT 42834 F D ALL YEL
Tomato
Solanum esculentum
AN E SU 5 FT 3 FT 42804 F M L YEL/RED

 

LEPIDOPTERAN-LARVAL BIENNIALS/PERENNIALS

 

Name Plant Type Origin Blooming Season Height Width Hardiness Sun Moisture Soil Color
Alfalfa
Medicago sativa
PR E SLP-ESU 2.5 FT 3.5 FT 42833 F M L LAV
False nettle
Boehmeria cylindrica
PR E LS-EAU 1.5 FT 1.5 FT 42833 F S SL PUR
Hops, common
Humulus lupulus
PR/VIN E SPR 15 FT 10 FT 42833 F M SL GRE
Knotweed
Polygonum spp.
PR/AN N SU-AU 2 FT 2 FT 42833 F MW CL PIK
Partridge pea, showy
Cassia fasciculata
PR N SU-EAU 3 FT 3 FT 42804 F D ALL YEL
Sorrel, rosy canaigre
Rumex hymenosepalus
PR N SP 3 FT 3 FT 42833 F D ALL ROS
Winter cress
Barbarea vulgaris
PR E LSP 3 FT 3 FT 42803 F D ALL YEL

 

Native Plant Suppliers

Aimers Quality Seeds & Bulbs
81 Temperance St.
Aurora, ONT
Canada L4G 2R1

 

Boothe Hill Wildflowers

23 B Boothe Hill

Chapel Hill, NC 27514

 

W. Atlee Burpee Co.
300 Park Ave.
Warminster, PA 18974

 

H.G. Hastings Co.

P.O. Box 115535

Atlanta, GA 30310

 

Larner Seeds
P.O. Box 407
Bolinas, CA 94924

 

Moon Mountain Wildflowers

P.O. Box 34

Morro Bay, CA 93443

 

Niche Gardens
1111 Dawson Rd.
Chapel Hill, NC 27516

 

Native Gardens

5737 Fisher Lane

Greenback, TN 37742

 

Park Seed Co.
P.O. Box 46
Greenwood, SC 29647

 

Prairie Nursery

P.O. Box 306-R

Westfield, WI 53964

 

Sunlight Gardens Inc.
Route 1, Box 600-OG
Andersonville, TN 37705

 

Sunshine Farm and Nursery

Route 1, Box 4030

Clinton, OK 73601

 

References

Brewer, Jo, Dave Winter. 1986. Butterflies and moths: a companion to your field guide. Prentice Hall Press, N.Y. 194 pp.
Dirr, Michael A. 1990. Manual of woody landscape plants. Stipes Publishing Co., Champaign. 937 pp.
Henderson, Carrol L. 1987. Landscaping for wildlife. Minnesota Dep’t. of Natural Resources, St. Paul. 144 pp.
Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium Staff. 1976. Hortus third. Macmillan Publishing Co., New York. 1177 pp.
Little, Elbert L. Jr. 1981. Forest trees of Oklahoma. Okla. State Dept. of Agriculture, Forestry Div. Publ. 1. Rev. ed. 12. 204 pp.
McCoy, Doyle. 1976. Roadside flowers of Oklahoma. Vols I, II. C and J Printing Co., Lawton. Vol I, 116 pp., Vol II, 60 pp.
Mitchell, Paul J. 1985. Perennial flowers and bulbs for Oklahoma. Oklahoma State University. Horticulture – Landscape Architecture Dept. HORT 4-2.
Perry, Frances. 1974. Simon and schuster’s complete guide to plants and flowers. Simon and Schuster, New York. 269pp.
Scott, James A. 1986. The butterflies of north america: a natural history and field guide. Stanford Univ. Press, Stanford. 10-82.
Sedenko, Jerry. 1991. The butterfly garden. Villard Books, New York. 144 pp.
Still, Steven M. 1994. Manual of herbaceous ornamental plants. Stipes Publishing Co., Champaign. 702 pp. Stokes, Donald and Lillian, Ernest Williams. 1991. The butterfly book: an easy guide to butterfly gardening, identification, and behavior. Little, Brown, and Company. 1-33.
Tilden, James W., Arthur Clayton Smith. A field guide to western butterflies. 1986. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. 5-32.
Villiard, Paul. 1975. Moths and how to rear them. Dover Publications, Inc., New York. 16, 232-235.
Whitcomb, Carl E. 1985. Know it and grow it. Vol. II. Lacebark Publications, Stillwater. 740 pp.
Xerces Society/Smithsonian Institution. 1990. Butterfly gardening: creating summer magic in your garden. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco. 192 pp.

 

 

Stephanie A. Smith
Entomology and Wildlife Extension
Program Assistant

 

Ron Masters
Former Extension Wildlife Specialist

 

David Hillock
Extension Consumer Horticulturist

 

Eric Rebek
Extension Entomologist

 

Don Arnold
Survey Entomologist

 

Mike Schnelle
Extension Horticulturist

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