Mariposa, Schmitter, Papillon; it doesn’t matter how you say it or in what language you say it, butterflies are just plain fascinating and beautiful. If you have watched these lovely creatures flit about out in the wild or in your yard at home, you have probably wondered a lot about them, such as, “What Do Butterflies Eat?”
How can you get more butterflies to come into your yard? How long do butterflies live? Where do butterflies sleep, or do they even sleep at all? These questions, and many others, are exactly what causes people to be so fascinated by these simple insects. You may even be pleasantly surprised and pleased by the answers to many of your butterfly questions.
What Do Butterflies Eat?
People watch butterflies land on flowers and plants. They assume that butterflies “eat” the plants or flowers. However, that’s not how eating and digestion work for the 17,500 different sub-species of butterflies in the world today.
When you are wondering “What do butterflies eat?”, you must first understand that butterflies do not have teeth or working mouthparts the way animals do. They are, after all, insects. Their mouthparts consist of a proboscis, which curls into a coil and sits resting under their heads when they are not trying to consume their meals. When they are ready to eat, the long, thin proboscis uncurls into a straight, stick-like siphon.
The butterfly uses these mouthparts to tap into a flower’s center, where nectar collects. The butterfly lives strictly on nectar alone as a food source, although some sub-species may also consume droplets of dew as a means of staying hydrated. (Dew is their water drink of choice.)
While butterflies prefer nectar, they are not entirely opposed to “tasting” anything sweet. They may land and use their proboscis to “taste” something like a blot of ice cream on the sidewalk, dripping sap or honey on a tree, or even the sugar syrup humans make to entice hummingbirds to a hummingbird feeder. However, the nutrition butterflies need is in the flowers they visit.
How Do Butterflies Taste? Their Remarkable Sensing Ability
To clarify, this is about how butterflies use their own sense of taste, not how butterflies themselves taste to humans, birds, or other predators. If you watch butterflies long enough, you might start to realize that butterflies will land on almost anything green or colorful, but they only seem to drink from certain flowers or plants.
For a long time, it was assumed that butterflies taste with their proboscis. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Yet some very observant scientists finally noticed that butterflies don’t always unfurl their proboscis on everything they land on. Still, a butterfly might walk around on a flower or plant for several minutes without seeming to drink or eat.
It could be that the butterfly is just taking a rest, but it is far more likely that it is tasting with its feet! You see, the butterfly has developed a very unique way to smell and taste things without eating them. It uses the receptors on its legs to first smell an object and then taste it.
In this way, the butterfly recognizes what is safe to eat because it has already smelled an object and tasted it just by landing on it. The butterfly can also tell if the flower is something it likes the taste of or has drank from before.
If by tasting and smelling something the butterfly realizes that it isn’t safe to consume or just tastes bad, it flies away. It preserves its own life and what precious little time it has on this planet by not eating something that is not good.
What Do Butterflies Eat in Winter When There Are No Flowers?
When you wonder about what do butterflies eat in winter, it’s simple. They don’t. Butterflies have very short lifespans and tend to live through the warmer months, breeding in late summer or early fall one last time, and then dying.
However, there are some species, like the beautiful orange and black monarch butterfly, that migrate to warmer climates. These migrating sub-species will find and consume nectar from more flowers in those climates. They may or may not survive the winter there before migrating north again.
Do Butterflies Eat Honey?
Honey is essentially the digested pollen bees gather and deposit in a honeycomb. While it is very sweet, a butterfly is not likely to consume it on a regular basis, especially if there are plenty of flowers around.
However, you may be able to draw the attention of butterflies by placing some watered-down honey in a feeder outside your home. (You may also draw bees, wasps, and hornets, so be careful about where you place this honey-water feeder.)
Likewise, sweet tree sap of fruit trees or maple trees will draw the attention of butterflies. You may see them land and “taste” with their legs. You may even see them uncurl their proboscises for a “drink”. Yet, the standard food for almost all butterflies is the nectar in flowers and flowering shrubs or trees.
What Do Butterflies Eat in Terms of Flowers?
Like most people you are probably wondering, “What flowers do butterflies eat?”
The sweetest flowers draw the most attraction to butterflies. These flowers might be actual flowers, or they might be blossoms on a bush or tree. Butterflies really love cherry and apple trees, blueberry bushes, and tulip trees. They are partial to mint, honeysuckle, lavender, lilacs, and a few other fragrant flowering bushes.
As for flowers, butterflies love snapdragons, phlox, hollyhocks, cornflowers, daylilies, lupines and pansies. There are many other flowering plants and flowers you can plant to encourage these colorful and delicate creatures to visit your yard.
The best thing is that it is easy to combine colors and heights of these plants to create a continuous show all spring, summer, and early fall.
How Do Butterflies Mate?
It is rare to witness the mating of butterflies. They have made an art form of making love and creating life, and they have done it with more intent for survival than any other reason. This is because a long courtship sitting on a flower makes them perfect prey for anything that would eat a butterfly.
When you want to know “How do butterflies mate?”, it is quite the show. Male butterflies do a little dance to show off for nearby females. Interested females will step forward for a closer look. The males then release mating pheromones that get the females excited and ready to mate.
The male picks a willing female and they literally hook up butt end to butt end. Then they fly around for up to a full day (24 hours) like this to avoid being eaten while they mate.
During this flight of love, the male shoots a sperm packet into the end of the female. Then they finally separate. Most males will die off after courtship because their life cycles are complete. Females will live long enough to lay eggs anywhere where it is safe to lay eggs.
A Unique Amazing Fertilzation Process
As each egg leaves the female butterfly’s abdomen, it passes through the pocket of sperm left behind by the male. It is fertilized before it is ejected and stuck to a leaf or other surface. In a few days to just a couple of weeks, the eggs hatch and tiny caterpillars enter the world to begin the butterfly life cycle all over again.
Some eggs may overwinter with certain butterfly sub-species. When that happens, the eggs will not hatch until they feel the warmth of the sun and surrounding air. For this reason, you should leave any butterfly eggs you find outside alone. They will be alright eventually.
What Do Butterflies Eat When They Are Mating?
They might not eat at all. Considering that they are in flight for most of the sexual relationship, eating is not on their minds. Additionally, the male will not need much nourishment as most male butterflies die shortly after their mating ritual.
IF the mating pair decide to take a short flight break, they will land on a flower still conjoined at the ends of their abdomens.
Females may take a short meal or two during mating because it takes a lot to mate and then begin creating eggs. If you happen to witness a mating pair of butterflies still joined and on a flower or bush, leave them be. They are very busy trying to create hundreds more of themselves for you to enjoy next year.
What Do Butterflies Eat When They Are Caterpillars vs. Full Grown Butterflies?
When you think of caterpillars, you might imagine those fuzzy, wriggly, little worm-like bugs that you find on a lot of plants. Some are very pretty, some are very fuzzy, soft, or woolly, and some have amazing defense systems for warding off predators.
Caterpillars have voracious appetites. They can eat their way through entire fields of plants before finally entering the pupa/cocoon stage.
Caterpillars stay inside their cocoons to complete a total metamorphosis into butterflies. They lose their chubby, worm-like bodies and self-defense features and become tiny, delicate, winged creatures. Butterflies are as much adored by farmers as bees are for their important role in growing crops. That is because butterflies help pollinate crops their caterpillar selves once ate.
So when you consider “What do butterflies eat?” versus “What do caterpillars eat?”, it’s clear that the metamorphosis these creatures make also alters and impacts their diet. Instead of consuming plants, they end up drinking nectar and helping plants grow. It’s really quite an amazing circle of life for such a tiny insect.
What Do Butterflies Eat When They Are Raised as Part of a Butterfly Garden/Exhibit?
Several museums and public arboretums have chosen to keep and raise butterflies in an enclosure. These exhibits are really popular with children who can see butterflies and caterpillars up close.
Many of these butterflies are gently handled often so that people visiting arboretums, museums, and botanical gardens can actually hold butterflies and have butterflies land on them!
If you have never seen one of these exhibits, it’s a real treat. It might also spark the question about what the caretakers of these butterflies feed the little winged insects.
Usually, there’s a little water fountain or a misting appliance in the enclosure to provide water for the butterflies. Then little trays of brightly colored gravel with lots of honey water over the top are placed out for the butterflies to sip from. Many of these exhibits also include dozens of live flowers and flowering plants.
What Attracts Butterflies Into Your Yard?
Think bright colors. Think lovely perfumed breezes wafting through your open windows. If it’s beautiful, colorful, and smells divine to you, it’s exactly what will bring the butterflies to your yard.
It’s a lot of work tending that many flowers and flowering plants, but it’s worth it to see so many butterflies and colorful moths flutter around and pollinate your yard.
If you consult with a landscaper or a horticulturist, they will tell you exactly how to plant a garden that not only draws butterflies, but encourages them to mate and lay eggs for you. Then you will be able to watch the life cycle of these amazing little creatures for as long as your garden grows and blooms.
Lastly, you should know it isn’t difficult to feed butterflies. It isn’t difficult to draw them to you. Butterflies are drawn by what they see and smell, so you could be wearing bright colors and smell like a naturally sweet perfume and they would land on you. Just be aware that if they do land on you, they are smelling and tasting you with their feet before deciding to take off for better-tasting flowers.