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Creating a butterfly garden

There are two things necessary in creating a successful butterfly garden. First, the adult butterflies are seeking nectar which they need for food, and second, a host plant, the place where the female will lay her eggs and which will supply food for the caterpillars (butterfly larvae) to eat when they hatch.

Adult butterflies and moths have mouthparts that are shaped into a long coiled tube called a proboscis, which they use to feed on liquids or the nectar of flowers. Butterfly tarsi or "feet" possess a sense similar to taste. Contact with sweet liquids such as nectar causes the proboscis to uncoil.

The caterpillars or larvae have chewing mouthparts. Butterflies start life as eggs laid on a host plant. These eggs hatch into very tiny caterpillars, or larva, which start eating immediately. First they eat their egg shell and then they begin feeding on their host plant. From hatching to pupating (forming the pupa or chrysalis), the caterpillar must molt, or crawl out of its skin several times before changing into a chrysalis. Their body size may increase more then 30,000 times. The adult butterfly emerges from the chrysalis and flies off in search of food and a host plant to lay is own eggs. This type of development is known as complete metamorphosis.

Most adult butterflies live 10 to 20 days. However, some live only 3 to 4 days, while the monarch, which must fly south each fall and fly north each spring, may live to be 6 months old.

Butterflies are nearsighted, like most insects, and are more attracted to large stands of a particular flower rather than a single flower plant. Butterflies do not see the color red as well as we do. However, they are able to see polarized light (light which tells the direction the sun is pointing) as well as ultraviolet light (which is present on many flowers). Butterflies also use their antennae to smell. This sense of smell is very well developed. All butterflies' antennae are club shaped, as opposed to moths, which can be many shapes but are usually feathery. Antennae help to guide butterflies to their nectar sources.

Adult butterflies are attracted to red, yellow, orange, pink and purple blossoms. They like flat-topped or clustered flowers with short tubes, so they can reach the nectar with their proboscis. Nectar producing flowers should be grown in open, sunny areas, as adults of most species rarely feed on plants in the shade. Favorite nectar plants include: asters, azalea, bee balm, blueberry, butterfly bush, milkweed, butterfly weed, coneflower, goldenrod, impatiens, Joe-Pye weed, lilac, marigolds, goldenrod, verbena, clover, alfalfa, legumes, dandelion, yarrow and zinnia.

Butterflies usually make their appearance in the spring, once the temperature is above 60 degrees, and remain around through the fall. All insects are cold-blooded and cannot internally regulate their body temperature. They fly best when their body temperature is between 85 to 100 degrees. You will see few butterflies on cloudy days. If the temperature dips below 80 degrees, you will see butterflies basking in the sun with their wings outstretched, absorbing heat. A flat rock placed in full sun will provide a spot where butterflies can bask. Butterflies also need partly shaded areas like trees or shrubs, so they can hide when it is cloudy or cool off if it is very hot. An ideal butterfly garden has 5 to 6 hours of sun a day, but should be sheltered from the wind. They can not feed in an area where they are constantly fighting the wind to stay on the plants. They also need a sheltered location to rest and seek protection from bad weather. During the night they roost, often on the underside of a leaf, shrub or tall grass.

Sometimes you see a crowd of butterflies around a puddle (this is called puddling). It is thought that butterflies are attracted to puddles because they contain dissolved minerals which they need to supplement their diet. Permanent puddles are easy to make by simply burying a shallow container and filling it to the rim with gravel or sand, then pouring in liquids such as stale beer, sweet drinks or water. Butterflies also love overripe fruit which has been allowed to sit for a few days.

Except for the migratory Monarch butterfly, most hibernate in the same place they spend the summer. They look for places such as loose bark, log piles or buildings. Some overwinter as adults, others as pupa and some as caterpillars. Some people like to place a butterfly hibernating box in their gardens. These are referred to as butterfly houses. The success of such a box is very limited and they are not encouraged because butterflies simply do not use them.

The use of pesticides is discouraged as they are harmful to caterpillars as they eat the foliage. If necessary to use pesticides it should be limited and used carefully.

Kyle Schulz is a Wadena County Master Gardener from Sebeka, and the regular gardening columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal.