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Imagine a garden full of brightly colored flowers, oranges, yellows and blues. Your children are squealing as they find yet another caterpillar hidden on a plant. Then their attention is diverted as they spot a yellow butterfly fluttering nearby. As they race to get a closer look, a bright orange and black butterfly glides into view. Everyone points and cheers as they spot the first monarch of the year.

Seem like an impossible dream? Actually with a little research and a small plot of ground, almost anything is possible when it comes to butterfly gardening. Plant a few food plants and some well-chosen flowers, and your garden can become an outdoor paradise for learning about butterflies and other insects.

What do you need to do to start a butterfly garden? The first step is research, research, research. Every region has its own unique blend of plant and butterfly species, and what works in one place may not in another. You and your children will need to look for species of butterflies that occur locally, and then find out what plants the adults use for food (nectar usually), and plants the caterpillars feed on. Fortunately in most areas there are individuals and organizations that are interested in butterfly gardening, and they have probably done some of the research for you. Try an Internet search for butterfly gardening in your region. Visit your local botanical gardens or arboreta. Look for regional books on butterflies and butterfly gardening. Also, keep records of what kinds of butterflies you see when you are hiking or walking through your neighborhood. Try to figure out what plants they seem to prefer.

In general:

buckeye butterfly
Scientists have shown adult butterflies prefer flowers that are yellow or blue. They also prefer flowers that are flat, so they have a platform to stand on while feeding, like this buckeye butterfly.

lantana

Neat fact:  Ever look closely at a Lantana flower? The center is often yellow and the outside dark pink. The yellow flowers are the fresh ones, with plenty of nectar and pollen. Once each individual flower in the cluster has been pollinated, it turns dark pink and is no longer attractive to butterflies.

butterfly weed

Butterfly weed is a common plant that will attract many butterflies.

moth eggs

The adult butterflies lay their eggs on the plants their caterpillars will eat. (These are the eggs of a large moth, by the way).

fritillary caterpillar

The caterpillars or larvae feed on the plant once they hatch from their eggs. Some caterpillars feed only on one or a few plants. For example, fritillary caterpillars feed on passion vines.

Other caterpillars may use a number of different plants as food. Also, some species may use one group of plants in one region and a different set in another region, depending on temperature, plant availability, etc. You only need to provide one or a few of the correct plants to attract butterflies.

Adult butterflies may be attracted to feeders, or pieces of certain kinds of fruit. There are some simple butterfly feeders that are easy to make.

male blues puddling

Adult butterflies may also be attracted to patches of mud, particularly the males. This behavior is called puddling.

After you and your children have decided which plants will work for your area, decide where to plant them. If you have a large enough space, you might want to develop a formal design. If not, plant them where you can. Just take care that if the plant requires sun, that it is a place with adequate sun and vice versa with shade-loving plants.

If possible, include your children in the planning and planting of the garden. Giving them ownership of a project is great for children’s self-esteem and helps maintain their enthusiasm. If things don’t go as planned, celebrate the mistakes as learning opportunities.

painted ladywhite butterfly

Once the plants are in, the ideas for projects will begin to flow. Planting a butterfly garden with children is sure to take you into directions you never dreamed possible.

Here are some books about butterflies and caterpillars in a later post. There are also some books listed in the white-lined sphinx moth post.

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Some of you might be wondering why the white-lined sphinx moth caterpillars (Hyles lineata) are traveling in such numbers (see previous post). No one knows for sure what is going on. Two suggestions are that the caterpillars are looking for places where they can dig into the soil to pupate, and/or that they have run out of food and are looking for more. The caterpillars feed on common desert weeds, several wild relatives of four o'clocks. These plants are drying out since we haven't had rain in a little while, so it is possible at least some of them are looking for food.

I was able to do a small experiment to test whether the pupation idea holds water. If you place one of these wandering larvae in a terrarium filled with soft, moist potting soil, you will be amazed at how fast they dig in. I expected to see a bit of wandering, then dig into the soil. Nope, almost as soon as their legs touched the soil they were digging. The hard clay desert soil (yes, our desert soil is clay rather than sand) is almost like cement where these larvae were found.

Update:  The white-lined sphinx moth emerged in September.

2

Wow, talk about timing. Shortly after I posted my Bug of the Week yesterday suggesting white-lined sphinx moth caterpillars (Hyles lineata) might be coming soon (see after second ladybug in that post), I got a call that masses of caterpillars are crossing Maricopa Road just South of Riggs Road, near Maricopa, Arizona. I drove right down. I probably should have taken the video camera instead of my still camera, because it doesn’t do justice to how fast these caterpillars were moving.

Unlike the pictures I linked to yesterday, these are mostly yellow and black caterpillars with a greenish head. As with many sphinx moths, the caterpillars have a spike at the tail.

whiteline caterpillar

The yellow marks below are where caterpillars didn’t make it across the road. I hope you can make out the yellow squiggles of all the caterpillars that are trying.

caterpillars in road

White-lined sphinx moth caterpillars vary considerably in color. This one was pale green rather than bright yellow.

small whiteline caterpillar

Aren’t these beauties?

caterpillar close upwhiteline caterpillar

Check the More About post for an update on white-lined sphinx moths.
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    Books About Caterpillars

If all these recent posts about caterpillars have made you interested in butterflies and moths, here are some books where you can learn more.

Books about caterpillars/butterflies for the youngest bug enthusiasts (Toddler):

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Summary: The board book version of this story is a perennial favorite. The story line is fun, the illustrations are colorful and the holes in the pages are magnets for little fingers. We made stick puppet characters and performed the story again and again.


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In depth review: As a scientist, I do have to point out one minor misuse of a term. In the end of the book (do I need to say spoiler alert here?) the caterpillar turns into a cocoon and then into a beautiful butterfly. Technically, however, a butterfly comes from chrysalis (or chrysalid), not a cocoon. Cocoons are the silken bags that moth caterpillars form around themselves prior to pupating. I see it as just a sloppy use of a word with a precise scientific meaning.

Eric Carle has been very open about admitting his mistake, although he does talk about an obscure butterfly that actually makes a cocoon. See http://www.eric-carle.com/q-cocoon.html for his response. To be fair, this book is a work of fiction. Caterpillars don’t really eat cherry pie or sausages either. That is part of what makes it so fun. So, go ahead and pick up a copy. You can read it as is, substitute chrysalis or substitute the word pupa if you don’t want to say chrysalis.

Caterpillar’s Wish by Mary Murphy is another colorful picture book about a caterpillar that turns into a butterfly. It is a delightful story about three friends. Bee and Ladybug can fly, but Caterpillar can’t. Caterpillar feels left out until he transforms into a butterfly.


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In depth: Once again the author has chosen to call the transitional stage a cocoon. In this case it may be because cocoon is a smaller word, more appropriate for toddlers? (Perhaps authors of children’s books should use the more generic word “pupa.” It is short, easy to say and always correct, regardless of which insect is the subject.)

Inch by Inch by Leo Lionni is an adorable tale of an inchworm that escapes from some hungry birds in a clever way. This book could also be useful as an introduction to measuring.


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Waiting for Wings by Lois Ehlert is bright, bold and beautifully done. It traces the life cycle of a butterfly very simply, and then has a bit more in depth information about butterflies and flowers at the end. There’s even a page of information about butterfly gardening.

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Ten Little Caterpillars
by Bill Martin Jr. and illustrated by Lois Ehlert

From Caterpillar to Butterfly by Deborah Heiligman, and illustrated by Bari Weissman, is an account of a classroom caterpillar that undergoes metamorphosis into a beautiful butterfly.

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Caterpillarology
by Michael Elsohn Ross is for children who are interested in science and doing science experiments. This book (and the others in the “-ology” series) are chock full of great information and fun activities. Whereas many children’s books repeat the same information over and over, these books are truly unique and interesting. “Chosen by Science Books and Films as one of the Best Books for Children.” Unfortunately, they are often out of print and may be hard to find.

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