The most beautiful and watchable life in our gardens include butterflies, moths and skippers. Called the Lepidopteran order of insects, they pollinate plants as well as feed songbirds, reptiles and amphibians. Their pollination helps create fruit, vegetables and flowers.
These insects go through metamorphosis in four stages
A fertilized egg that hatches in about a week.
The larval or caterpillar stage. During this period of life they eat leaves, shedding their skin several times as they grow larger.
A pupa or chrysalis that the caterpillar attaches to a plant with silk. Inside the case, the caterpillar turns to liquid and forms into a butterfly, moth or skipper.
The adult emerges with wet folded wings in about 2 weeks.
Butterflies, moths and skippers need flower nectar, water, sunshine, a mud puddle and caterpillar food to raise the next generation.
They also need a chemical free environment without pesticides, herbicides and other poisons.
To attract adult butterflies and moths, provide tall plants like shrubs and fall asters in a sunny location for protection from predators.
Many flowers, herbs and fruit produce nectar from spring to fall to feed the adults. Some hobbyists put out over-ripe fruit on tall feeders for the butterflies.
These flying flowers seem to prefer mass plantings of the same plant. A bed full of zinnias or petunias will attract dozens, if not hundreds of skippers and butterflies while they are in bloom.
White flowers will attract the most night feeders such as moths. Red, orange, pink, purple and yellow flowers attract the most butterflies.
Male butterflies need a muddy place to gather because they eat the minerals in the mud to pass along to the female during mating.
The plants you provide for laying eggs and raising young should be placed well away from bird houses.
Native plants attract native butterflies but hundreds of flowers will attract some form of adult Lepidoptera.
Nectar plants that attract adult Lepidoptera -
Spring: Carrots, violets, native cherry, vetch, clover, lilac, lunaria, catnip, coreopsis, blackberry, sweet pea, sweet William, daffodil, Dame’s rocket, and hyacinth
Summer: Dill, Queen Anne's Lace, parsley, pentas, goldenrod, lemon balm, milkweed, butterfly-weed, coneflower, petunia, mint, marjoram, bergamot-Monarda, sage, marigold, black-eyed Susan, mallow, passionflower, pipe vine, yarrow, honeysuckle, privet, cosmos, heliotrope, lantana, tithonia-Mexican sunflower, verbena, leek, chives, daisy, daylily, bachelor buttons, fleabane, feverfew, blazing star, lily, sunflower, veronica, hyssop, borage, phacelia
Fall: Aster, basil, moonflower, fennel, thistle, obedient plant, sedum, sneezeweed, Joe Pye weed, yarrow, ironweed, globe amaranth, zinnia
Female Lepidopterans lay eggs only on the plants that their caterpillars can eat when they hatch. If you want to help the butterflies raise their young, you have to let them eat the leaves of your plants.
The plants they eat, called host plants, have leaves that look chewed when caterpillars are growing. You can watch the caterpillars grow daily and shed their outer skin as they fatten.
Plants for Caterpillars: Dill, aster, spicebush, fennel, parsley, passion vine, flowering tobacco, cabbage, mallow, sneezeweed, alfalfa, nettle, hops, partridge pea, sorrel, cress, pipe vine, leadplant, clover, vetch, thistle, violet
Trees for Caterpillars: Poplar, oak, birch, native cherry, dogwood, elm, hackberry, paw paw, tulip poplar, sassafrass, locust, willow
The caterpillars will stop eating for a couple of days before they begin to form a chrysalis. If you look, you will find the chrysalis near the plants they were eating.
Look at the 135 native Oklahoma butterflies, moths and skippers at Butterflies and Moths of North America - http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/.
Some to watch for include Fritillary, Hummingbird, Monarch and Queen, Sulphur, Question Mark, Hackberry, Swallowtails (Tiger, Spicebush, Black, Giant and Pipevine), Cloudywing and Duskywing skippers, Clouded, Broken-dash and Least Grass Skippers.