How to attract butterflies? Part 1: Understanding what butterflies prefer


The brightly colorful butterflies are a brilliant sight to observe in our wildlife gardens. They not only entertain and provide us a peace of mind, but prove themselves useful by pollinating our flowers.

To attract butterflies and to make them truly adore your garden requires a few key steps. First step is to learn to think like a butterfly. When you know what butterflies prefer you are able to answer their needs. Second step is to grow an optimal butterfly garden. Third step is customizing and trying out different tricks to attract specific preferred species.

Mastering all the steps requires a bit of dedication and green thumb, but the reward will be great. Your morning tea by the garden has never tasted this good before.

In part one we must become a butterfly and understand how they perceive the world. Shall we begin?

1. Learn your local butterflies

Growing your garden to suit the taste of these butterflies will bring great results.

Every species has their own preferences and they differ in terms of size, diet and migration. Learn and discover the native species in your area and focus your efforts in attracting these specific breeds. In the UK there are for example 58 main types of butterflies.

Here are the 14 most common butterflies found in UK:

  • Comma, Brimstone, Gatekeeper, Green Veined White, Large White, Marbled White, Meadow Brown, Peacock, Purple hairstreak, Ringlet, Small Heath, Small Skipper, Wall Brown and Common Blue

2. Colors matter

Butterflies see the world a lot differently when compared to man because they can see ultraviolet light. Butterflies color receptors can only perceive colors in a high frequency (frequency is a measuring unit of color). They can’t pick up lower frequencies, thus they are blind to the color red for example.

This doesn’t mean butterflies wouldn’t pollinate red flowers. In fact as a general rule butterflies prefer flowers that are white, pink, purple, red, yellow and orange. Least favorite colors are blue and green.

Butterflies may learn which colored flowers tend to produce their favorite types of nectar.

3. Choosing the right kind of flowers

Butterflies visit your garden primarily in search of nectar and other food sources. Butterflies love to spend their daytime in places that have lots of nectar resources and receive plenty of sunlight from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. Fully grown-up butterflies avoid feeding in the shade. It is important to choose flowers that enjoy lots of sunshine and plant them where they receive as much light as possible.

Good rule of thumb for a butterfly-attracting flower is:

  1. It produces lots of nectar
  2. It has deep flowers so they are only accessible to insects with long tongues
  3. Its flowers are massed so that once a butterfly lands it can easily find lots of nectar

Butterflies are for example always fans of the flower Buddleja (Butterfly bush)

4. Nectar all summer long

It is important to plan beforehand how to keep your garden blooming the whole summer. Butterflies need nectar throughout an adult butterfly’s life cycle.

Mark in your calendar the dates when you plant your seeds. Use the information from the plant packaging to find the time it takes for the flower to bloom and how long it will bloom. Mark all these in your calendar and try to keep your bloom dates continuous. This way there will always be nectar in your garden throughout the whole summer.

5. Let's not forget about the caterpillars

Same as when choosing the right kind of flowers for the perfect nectar-sipping experience, butterflies need proper so called ‘host plants’ to lay its eggs on. Host plants are not the most flamboyant kind of flowers. They are the nurseries of the garden: they provide protection and an optimal place for the caterpillars to grow.

Common host plants are for example:

  • Flowers: Aster, Butterfly Milkweed, Common Milkweed, Coneflowers, Mallow, Ruellia, Snapragon, Swamp Milkweed, Violet and Wild Senna
  • Herbs: Dill, Fennel and Parsley
  • Grasses: Little Bluestem Grass, Orchard Grass and Panic Grass
  • Vines: Passion flowers and Pipevine
  • Trees: Aspen Tree, Elm Tree, Prickly Ash, Sweet Bay and Willow.

By including both host plants and nectar plants you can attract a wider selection of butterflies while providing an environment that supports their entire life cycle.

These are the first five points we need to understand about butterflies in order to move on to the next part of our guide: growing an optimal butterfly garden. In the next chapter we will also cover what other possibilities there is to attract butterflies if you don't have a garden. Stay tuned!

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