How to Attract Butterflies to a Backyard

Butterflies need places to feed through all four stages of their lives.
Butterflies need places to feed through all four stages of their lives.
Nathan Blaney/Photodisc/­Getty Images

­Butterflies are pretty and somewhat mysterious. That's a perfect combination to spark our imaginations. They appear in our art, our poetry and even in our tattoos. So with about 20,000 species of butterflies in the world and more than 700 species living in North America alone, why aren't they appearing in your backyard [source: North American Butterfly Association]?

First it's important to understand the life cycle of a butterfly because it has different needs during different times of life. Butterflies become adults through a four-stage metamorphosis, beginning as an egg. Larva (a caterpillar) hatches from that egg and becomes a chrysalis (pupa) that finally transforms into an adult. Food preferences vary during each phase of life -- larvae, for example, like to munch on leafy greens but most adult butterflies eat a liquid nectar diet that they drink through a long, tubular mouthpiece called a proboscis.


Adults live anywhere from a few days to about six months, with ­most lasting about 10 to 20 days -- it depends on the species and the number of predators around. Butterflies tempt a sizeable group of predators including birds, bats, snakes, toads, monkeys and, yes, even humans. Birds especially love to snack on caterpillars.

­Butterflies are only looking for a few simple things out of life: shelter from predators, sun for basking and flower nectar for sipping, which incidentally makes them great pollinators. They're also looking for the right spot to lay their eggs. Your yard may be sunny and flowers may be blooming, but just as people have specific likes and dislikes, so do butterflies. Let's find out the tricks that will have butterflies eating out of your hand (well, not literally).


Attracting Butterflies

Leafy green plants provide butterflies with shelter and a spot to rest.
Leafy green plants provide butterflies with shelter and a spot to rest.
Luis Castaneda Inc./The Image Bank/Getty Images

­Transforming your yard into a butterfly-friendly retreat is as easy as offering the right plants for the right stages of the butterfly's life. Two popular ways of attracting butterflies are planting the right plants in your yard and building butterfly feeders.

To attract butterflies to your yard, you need to first get their attention. Butterflies like clusters of vibrantly colored, fragrant flowers such as marigolds and zinnias, which can be planted in butterfly gardens, existing vegetable­ gardens or in containers. The most irresistible backyard garden will include a diverse mix of native flowers, offer shelter from the wind and rain and get plenty of sun. Shallow water spots, such as mud puddles, are also important items for the menu.


Don't forget to feed the larvae -- it's important to put together a buffet that's attractive at every stage of the butterfly's life, and caterpillars like leafy green shrubs and grasses. They also look for sheltered shrubs on which to form a chrysalis.

What complicates things is that not all butterflies eat nectar. Rotting fruits, sap and even feces and urine appeal to some species of butterfly. Catering to these needs is equally easy, though. Try planting fruit trees and allowing fruit to drop on the ground and decompose. Or try composting. Toss kitchen and yard waste (including fruits) into your compost pile, and you'll create a haven for all sorts of insects including butterflies.

Also, don't be afraid to let things get a little wild. By taking meticulous care of your yard, you're robbing butterflies of shelter and food. Skip the commercial pesticides and fertilizers -- the chemicals they contain are poisonous to butterflies. Instead, dig into your compost heap for homemade organic fertilizer.

What if you don't have a yard, a plot for planting or a green thumb? You can also attract adult butterflies with a hanging butterfly feeder or butterfly house. There are two basic types of feeders, jar and plate, and both can be made at home with just a few things from your kitchen. Jar feeders are essentially small jars -- about the size of a baby-food container -- that are filled with a small amount of sugar water. These feeders appeal to butterflies with nectar diets. To draw butterflies with tastes for spoiled fruit, create a plate feeder by simply placing a piece of rotting fruit on a plate or plastic lid. Hang either type of feeder a few feet above the ground and keep the sweet treats flowing.

Once you've transformed your yard or hung up your feeder, be sure to grab your binoculars -- butterflies are small and skittish, and you don't want to miss them hiding in the foliage!


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Audubon. "Butterflies."
  • Bremner, Lynn. "How to Attract Hummingbirds and Butterflies to your Backyard." DesertUSA.
  • The Butterfly Farm.
  • The Butterfly Lab at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. "Frequently Asked Questions."
  • Home Science Tools. "Make a Butterfly Feeder."
  • Irish Peatland Conservation Council "Composting and Wildlife Gardening."
  • Lewis Gardens. "Butterfly Gardening."
  • National Wildlife Federation. "Attracting Butterflies."
  • North American Butterfly Association. "Butterfly Questions and Answers." 1999.