How to Attract Butterflies: 17 Tips (2021 Guide)
How do you attract butterflies to your yard?
I have been pondering this question recently after visiting my grandparents. They have managed to create an incredible pollinator garden in their backyard, full of beautiful flowers that bloom throughout the whole summer.
One of their favorite activities is watching butterflies flutter around their yard.
My grandpa has even built a small, screened house in the garage where they raise caterpillars they have found. Once the adult emerges from the chrysalis, the adult butterfly gets released back into the garden.
My kids (and me) had so much fun catching the caterpillars and watching the butterflies, that I knew had to start focusing more attention on attracting these beneficial insects to our yard.
So I have spent the last few months doing a ton of research. I read books, collected articles, and asked my grandparents all sorts of butterfly related questions.
And I’m proud to announce that I have started building my own butterfly garden.
(I will update this picture next summer once the plants mature.)
Today, I’m going to share everything that I have learned so far.
Here are 17 tips you can use to attract butterflies!
Tip #1: Provide NATIVE flowers full of nectar!
You probably know that butterflies are attracted to bright, beautiful flowers. The reason for this is because the adults NEED the nectar that flowers provide for nourishment and energy. In fact, nectar is the ONLY food source for most adult butterflies.
There is probably no better way to see butterflies in your backyard than planting lots of flowers.
But flowers are not created equal when attracting butterflies.
Here are a few recommendations when choosing flowers for your butterfly garden:
A. Don’t select flowers that are long and tubular.
These types of flowers are better suited for hummingbirds. Butterflies will have a hard time reaching the nectar at the bottom of the flower.
B. Look for flowers native to North America.
The reason for this is that butterflies that live in North America have evolved and adapted alongside native flowers. The tropical plant from Malaysia may look pretty, but there is a high chance native insects won’t use it.
- Native Plant search tool (National Wildlife Federation) – Enter your zip code for a list of recommended flowers, grasses, trees, and shrubs.
C. Shop at a local garden center or nursery.
Local experts can provide native plants for your region and hardiness zone.
- Buying a lot of flowers can become expensive! You may consider growing your plants from seed, which can save hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Or try to find any friends who are dividing some of their plants, and see if they will give you some.
D. Select plants with various heights.
Smaller species of butterflies tend to prefer feeding low to the ground, while larger species enjoy staying high.
Tip #2: Design your butterfly garden BEFORE you start planting.
I know you are excited about starting your butterfly garden. But please don’t just start randomly buying stuff from your local garden center and planting.
Try to design where you are going to put your new flowers and plants first.
Here are a few tips when planning your butterfly garden:
- Layer your plants by height. Shrubs and the tallest flowers should go to the back, then plant those of medium height, followed by the shortest ones in the front. This strategy allows you to see all of your flowers and is also visually pleasing (for humans).
- Include lots of different types of plants to attract the widest variety of butterflies. Having more plants typically gives you more bloom time, which attracts more pollinators.
- RELATED: 22 PROVEN Flowers That Attract BEES!
- Don’t forget about annuals. While perennials come back every year, they have a fairly short bloom time. Annuals typically bloom all summer!
- Plant the same types of flowers together. It seems that butterflies are attracted the most to large clumps of blooming flowers together, versus that same flower spread around your whole garden. This might be because butterflies don’t see well, and it’s much easier to see a mass of the same color instead of single flowers all over the place.
- Keep your bird feeders away! If possible, try to put your butterfly garden as far away from your bird feeders as possible. Most birds like to eat caterpillars, so I think you can probably see the problem?
Tip #3: Select flowers with different bloom times.
Unfortunately, most perennial flowers only bloom for a small period each growing season. So imagine what your butterfly garden will look like if you pick plants that all bloom in mid-July! You will have dozens of butterflies for a few weeks, then nothing the rest of the year.
For example, here is a good mix of flowers that will provide colors from late spring to early fall:
- Phlox: April, May, June
- Lupine: May, June, July
- Snapdragon: May, June, July
- Salvia: June – September
- Milkweed: June, July, August
- Bee Balm: July, August, September
- Asters: August, September
A good rule of thumb is to have a MINIMUM of three types of plants in bloom at any one time during the growing season.
Tip #4: Don’t focus ONLY on “flowers.”
When I refer to the term “flowers” above, I mean small flowering plants such as Black-eyed Susans, Purple Coneflowers, or Shasta Daisies.
While these sorts of plants are great for attracting butterflies, many people forget about shrubs, trees, vines, and grasses. These types of plants feature various kinds of flowers that many butterfly species can’t resist or are host plants for caterpillars (see Tip# 5 below).
Tip #5: Don’t forget about caterpillars and HOST PLANTS.
When trying to attract butterflies, it’s common for people to focus only on flowering plants for the ADULT butterfly.
But let’s take a look at the complete butterfly life cycle below:
You will notice that a butterfly has four stages to its life cycle. The egg, caterpillar, chrysalis (pupa), and the adult butterfly.
And only the ADULT butterfly use flowers. The other three stages (egg, caterpillar, chrysalis) use something called a HOST plant.
Host plants are plants that adult females use to lay their eggs on, and then the larvae caterpillars will eat. Most butterfly species will only use a few different types of plants as hosts. As soon as the caterpillars hatch, they can immediately start munching away.
If you don’t include host plants in your yard, then you are missing out on much of the butterfly life cycle!
Since many host plants are weeds, grasses, or wildflowers that are not that “pretty,” many butterfly gardeners designate a particular spot in their yard just for host plants and let them grow crazy.
I think finding and observing caterpillars is half the fun of attracting butterflies!
Tip #6: Place your flowers in the sun.
Make sure to put your primary butterfly plants in an area that receives lots of sunlight.
First, most flowering plants need a lot of sun to thrive.
Second, adult butterflies typically only feed in sunny areas. Interestingly, most butterfly species need their temperature above 85 degrees F to fly well. On many cloudy days, butterflies become inactive, and they are hard to see. If your garden is sunny throughout the day, it also allows more time for feeding, fluttering, and egg-laying.
Lastly, sunshine is also helpful for eggs and caterpillars. When it’s warm, they both develop more rapidly – sometimes up to 50% faster!
Tip #7: Buy a butterfly feeder.
If you don’t have space to plant a beautiful garden full of nectar-filled flowers, then you should consider buying a butterfly feeder.
Butterfly feeders typically have a small reservoir that is filled with homemade nectar, along with a spot to place some fruit. Some species of butterflies skip nectar altogether and ONLY feed on rotting fruit.
Luckily, making nectar for butterflies is easy! It’s the same recipe that you use for hummingbird nectar.
If you decide to purchase a butterfly feeder, make sure that you change the nectar often! It can be harmful to allow creatures to drink spoiled sugar water.
Tip #8: Don’t let your butterflies blowwwwww away.
Because of their light weight, butterflies are very susceptible to the wind. It’s hard for them to fly in breezy conditions, and they expend a lot of energy while doing so.
If your backyard can be windy, try to provide some protection by planting large shrubs, trees, or grasses around your yard. Certain types of fences can also help block some wind.
If you haven’t built a butterfly garden yet, try to place it in a spot that is mostly protected from the wind. This could be on the side of your house or barn, or maybe even alongside a row of trees.
Tip #9: Eliminate pesticides and insecticides.
This tip seems pretty straightforward, right?
Pesticides and insecticides are not selective. They KILL everything.
If you want butterflies in your backyard, you shouldn’t spray toxic chemicals everywhere that are designed to kill insects.
Not to mention, you expose yourself, your family, and your pets to these harmful poisons.
Tip #10: Provide a place for “puddling.”
Butterflies need water to survive. But unlike most other creatures, butterflies don’t typically drink water straight from the source, like a lake, stream, or birdbath.
Instead, butterflies partake in something called “puddling,” which is when they visit damp soil or a mud puddle to obtain their water.
Try to create an area where butterflies can do some puddling!
Here are two ideas:
- Obtain a small dish and put coarse sand and a bit of dirt inside. Find a place in your garden to place the pan and keep it moist.
- Save an empty milk jug and fill it with water. Find an inconspicuous place in your yard to hang the container. Then poke a small hole in the bottom, so the water drips out slowly. The dripping water will create a small area that is always damp for butterflies!
Do you want to supercharge your “puddling” spot?
Another benefit that butterflies obtain from “puddling” is they get essential minerals and salts that help them survive.
So to really help butterflies, you can add salt to your wet mud.
First, find a spot in your garden where you don’t want plants to grow anymore. Remember that salt is an excellent natural herbicide.
Once the area is damp, mix a small amount of non-iodized sea salt (or wood ashes) into the mud.
Voila! Now you have your very own salt lick that also acts as a spot for “puddling.”
Tip #11: Put some flat stones in your garden.
As we mentioned earlier, butterflies need to be warm to start flying.
And rocks hold heat much better than soil and mulch.
Butterflies will instantly be attracted to warm rocks that have been heated by the sun. They can bask in the sunlight while absorbing warmth from the rock.
In addition to providing a safe area where butterflies can soak up the sun, rocks give visual interest. I use flat stones as a pathway through my flower garden, so there are dozens of places for sunbathing. We just have to be careful not to step on any. 🙂
Tip #12: Buy a butterfly house.
Installing a butterfly house in your pollinator garden gives butterflies a DRY place to hide. It also gives them a place to get out of the wind or hide at night.
Unfortunately, most enthusiasts would agree that it’s rare to see a butterfly use a house.
But even if a butterfly never actually uses the house, I think they make attractive additions to flower gardens!
Instead of a butterfly house, you may want to consider a native bee house.
Bee houses work MUCH better at actually attracting insects.
Tip #13: Don’t clean your yard (that much)!
Many people pick up every leaf and stick that ever touches their precious yard.
While this may look nice, it’s not beneficial for butterflies, other insects, birds, squirrels, etc.
Leaf litter and decaying wood provide tons of habitat for many insect species in different development stages. Most butterflies don’t fly to Mexico each winter like Monarchs, but instead, overwinter in the United States and Canada. They NEED and rely upon the leaf litter and other debris that falls from trees.
Firewood and brush piles make excellent shelter for overwintering butterflies.
Tip #14: Join a local butterfly club.
The best way to learn about what works best for attracting butterflies in your area is to join a local butterfly club!
If you are interested, click the link below to find the closest near you.
Tip #15: Certify your habitat.
Once you are done creating a beautiful butterfly habitat in your backyard, you might as well get it certified through the National Wildlife Federation.
Once you’re approved, you even get a fancy sign that you can display!
And if you’re not approved, then at least you can get some recommendations from experts on what to do next.
Tip #16: Buy these books to keep learning.
Are you excited about attracting butterflies and want to learn more?
Here are some of my favorite books that I own and reference often:
*Links take you to Amazon.*
Tip #17: Just get started!
The best way to learn how to attract butterflies is to start doing something.
Every region and area is unique, so what works for somebody else might not for you, and vice versa.
Buy your first plants and get digging. Sketch out your butterfly garden design. Buy a hummingbird feeder or book.
I don’t care what it is. Just do something to get started!