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Bees get all the buzz whenever someone brings up pollination, but butterflies deserve some credit, too. In fact, there are some flowers that are pollinated specifically by butterflies.


What is pollination? Remember visiting flower parts a few weeks ago? Let's look at the generalized diagram again:

Mature_flower_diagram.svg (“Mature flower diagram” by Mariana Ruiz LadyofHats. Public Domain image at Wikimedia Commons.)

Pollination is simply the movement of the pollen made in the anthers (pollen shown as orange balls in this diagram on the right) to the top of the female part of the flower, called the stigma. Sometimes the physical distance between the two seems quite small, but many, many plants need the assistance of animal pollinators to achieve pollination.

red-bird-of-paradise-228Take the red bird of paradise flowers. The long, red threadlike structures are the anthers on very long filaments.


What pollinates such an odd flower? It turns out that when swallowtail butterflies drink the nectar of these flowers, they get pollen all over their wings. When they drink at another red bird of paradise flower, they pollinate it.

Other flowers pollinated by butterflies include phlox, many of the flat-topped flower heads in the daisy family (asters, zinnias, etc.), and the milkweeds.

Butterflies are attracted to flowers so they can feed on nectar.

queen-butterfly-339-feedingButterflies use their proboscis (mouthparts) rather like a straw when they drink nectar. Can you see this queen butterfly's proboscis probing the milkweed flower?

Pollination-Related Activities

1. Nectar Cups for Young Children

Let young children pretend they are butterflies and make nectar cups for them to drink from.


  • Plastic or paper cups with tops that have opening for straws
  • Straws
  • Construction paper or posterboard
  • Flower shape stencils (optional)
  • Pencils
  • Scissors
  • Juice or other drink to serve as nectar

1. Have the children cut flower shapes from the construction paper. For very young children, adults may need to help draw the flower shapes using stencils and to help cutting out thicker posterboard.

2. Use a sharpened pencil to poke a hole in the center of the flower large enough to accommodate the straw.

3. Fill the cup with the drink ("nectar"). Cap the cup and then put the straw through the paper flower center and into the cap of the cup. Allow the flower to rest on the cap, so the children can drink the "nectar" from the "flower."

2. Investigate Pollination in the Butterfly Garden

Surprisingly little is known about butterflies and pollination. Older children may want to investigate butterfly pollination in their butterfly gardens.

Go out to the garden at the same time every day for at least once a day and count how many butterflies you see on a few different types of flowers over a given amount of time, say 15 minutes. Record the species you see with a camera. Graph your results and figure out which species of butterflies prefer which types of flowers.

(You might want to see a similar study for bees for ideas).


Be sure to check our growing list of links to information about butterfly gardening with children.

The butterfly is a flying flower,
The flower a tethered butterfly.
~Ponce Denis Écouchard Lebrun


Butterflies are colorful, interesting insects. Many children find them fascinating. In fact, butterflies have become so popular that over the last few decades, butterfly houses and pavilions have sprung up all over. Children are more likely to have experienced butterflies close up than ever before. You may wonder whether you even need to plant your own butterfly garden when a trip to see butterflies is only a car ride away.

Although butterfly exhibits are educational and fun to explore, some children will be inspired to learn more about butterflies after visiting. Here are a few good reasons to consider butterfly gardening with children:

Butterfly-Gardening- Infographic2(By the way, this comparison is not intended to be negative about butterfly exhibits, but only to encourage exploration beyond their limits.)

Tips for Starting Your Own Butterfly Garden

What do butterflies need to survive? Food, water and shelter are all important. Let's find out how to provide butterflies with the necessities.

1. Adult Butterfly Nectar Plants

An easy way to get started with butterfly gardening is to provide some flowering plants to provide nectar for adult butterflies. These plants may be in your yard or even in pots on your patio.

Choosing plants can be a bit daunting at first. Try taking a walk around some local gardens and note which plants butterflies are visiting. Check with local butterfly societies and plant nurseries for suggestions, as well. Ideally you want to have a range of plants that bloom over the entire growing season.

Native versus non-native plants

When you are just starting out, you may just want to try planting some old favorites, like zinnias or cosmos. Butterfly experts recommend, however, that you also include some native or local plants. For example, given a choice between:

real-butterfly-weed-dcThe butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) which is native to eastern North America, or...


the the exotic tropical or blood milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, the butterfly milkweed is a safer bet. If you are an experienced butterfly gardener, you might want to check this .pdf article about the recent controversy about the tropical milkweed and the monarch butterfly.

Some butterfly favorite plants are:

  • milkweeds (monarchs, queens)
  • lantana
  • butterfly bush
  • ageratum (attracts male queen butterflies)
  • dill, fennel or parsley (swallowtails)
  • hollyhocks (painted lady)
  • passion flower (fritillaries)

2. Caterpillar host plants

If you are interested in raising butterflies and seeing the life stages, then it is important to provide the plants that caterpillars use for food. Caterpillars often have specific and limited feeding preferences. Look for information about your local butterflies and their hosts at websites like Butterflies and Moths of North America (click on the "regional checklists" tab).

black-swallowtail-larva-Papilio polyxenes-22

Dill and fennel are eaten by certain swallowtail caterpillars. Butterfly gardeners always plant some extra for the butterflies.

3. Water

Even though many butterflies drink nectar, some also drink water or obtain nutrients from wet spots in the garden. Providing a damp bare spot or patch of moist sand is likely to be enough.


4. Shelter

Butterflies need places to stow away at night, and to shelter from wind and rain during the day. Providing leafy shrubs and trees, plus not being excessively tidy are great ways to ensure butterflies have safe places to hide.

This video from University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension has some good ideas.

Other suggestions:

No two butterfly gardens will be alike. They will vary according to region, size and the individual taste of the gardeners. Make butterfly gardening a family project and don't be afraid to let your creativity run wild.

Consider recording your observations via a nature journal, photographs and sound recordings. You might even want to keep a blog or share on Instagram or Flickr to inspire other butterfly gardeners. The possibilities are endless!

Do you have a butterfly garden? Have you gardened with children? What tips would you share? Have you encountered any problems? What suggestions do you have to avoid them?

Be sure to check our Butterfly Gardening With Children links page for more activities throughout the week.




Butterfly gardening has become an incredibly popular activity. It is so easy, because all it requires is a little space and a few carefully chosen plants. It can be an extremely rewarding activity to carry out with children, who can experience hands-on science at its best while learning about topics like pollination, insect life cycles, and weather. We are so excited about it that we are going to devote a week of blog posts to butterfly gardening with children.


Our schedule:

Monday: The basics of butterfly gardening with children.

Tuesday: Figure out the five Mystery Seeds that will become great butterfly garden plants.

Edit:  The answers are now posted. See five great nectar plants for butterfly gardens.

Wednesday:  Identifying Butterflies for Beginners (with activity suggestions)

Thursday:  Pollination and butterflies (with activity suggestions)

Friday:  Adding trees to your butterfly garden.

We made it through the week!


Growing Resource List:

Butterfly and Moth Activities at Growing with Science website.

Butterfly Project has information about starting a butterfly garden.

Butterfly science activities here at Growing with Science blog

The North American Butterfly Association (NABA) has an extensive list of plants for butterfly gardens.

All about monarch butterflies and their migrations at Journey North

More about identifying butterflies at Gardens With Wings

See our list of fabulous children's books about butterflies and moths at Science Books for Kids.


Please join us and feel free to add links to your own posts, any questions, or ideas for topics about butterfly gardening with children in the comments.