Pollinators in Our Gardens: Butterflies and Moths

Butterflies are some of the most beautiful and graceful of all pollinators. Through providing safe habitats we can also support the roles that butterflies play in pollination. Butterflies need flowers in full sun that are protected from wind, preferably away from roadways.

About 75% of all flowering plants rely on animal pollinators and over 200,000 species of animals act as pollinators. Of those, about 1,000 are hummingbirds, bats, and small mammals. The rest are insects such as beetles, bees, ants, wasps, butterflies, and moths. And, worldwide, approximately 1,000 plants grown for food, beverages, fibers, spices, and medicines need to be pollinated by animals in order to produce the goods on which we depend.

In the garden, keep in mind that some of the plants we plant will be eaten by butterfly caterpillars. I’ve always found that a plant eaten by them was a delight, taking the attitude of “if you build it, they will come” scenario rather than one of destruction. Because of this I plant extra, so ‘I’ can have a lush garden and so the ‘butterflies’ have more than enough to eat. Read Fast Facts for Gardeners: why pollinators are important.

It’s at the caterpillar stage of a butterflies lifecycle that it’s important to have a good field guide handy to identify them properly. Many a day in the garden I witnessed plump caterpillars eating my plants, many a future-butterfly were spared because of my field guide. One such lucky fella was the subject of the photo’s in this article. What a treat it was to go outside and watch the changes occur, which happen rather quickly (I think) considering all that’s going on.

Black Swallowtail butterfly chrysalis

“Adding native plantings in Riparian Areas to improve pollinator habitat makes sense in advancing our family farm’s conservation and economical objectives, enhancing beneficial wildlife and improving pollination in our orchard and garden.” ~ Lee McDaniel, Farmer and President, National Association of Conservation Districts

In their 1996 book, the Forgotten Pollinators, Buchmann and Nabhan estimated that animal pollinators are needed for the reproduction of 90% of flowering plants and one third of human food crops. Each of us depends on these industrious pollinators in a practical way to provide us with the wide range of foods we eat. In addition, pollinators are part of the intricate web that supports the biological diversity in natural ecosystems that helps sustain our quality of life.

Gardeners have been attracting butterflies to their gardens for some time. These insects tend to be eye- catching, as are the flowers that attract them. Position flowering plants where they have full sun and are protected from the wind. Also, you will need to provide open areas (e.g. bare earth, large stones) where butterflies may bask, and moist soil from which they may get needed minerals. By providing a safe place to eat and nest, gardeners can also support the pollination role that butterflies play in the landscape. It might mean accepting slight damage to the plants, known as host plants, that provide food for the larval stage of the butterfly.

A diverse group of butterflies are present in garden areas and woodland edges that provide bright flowers, water sources, and specific host plants. Numerous trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants support butterfly populations.

A terrific resource for learning more about which plants to consider in the garden is found at Pollinator Partnership, they have compiled free guides (PDF’s) that are quite useful, Pollinator Friendly Planting Guides (24 pages).

Moths and Butterflies as Pollinators

Butterflies, possibly the best loved of all insects, are appreciated as benign creatures that add color, beauty, and grace to our gardens. Moths, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as appreciated for their pollinating contributions. Butterflies and moths belong to the same insect order, Lepidoptera.

Can you tell the difference between a moth and a butterfly? 

In general, butterflies are brightly colored, and fly by day, and moths are more likely to be grey or brown, and fly at night. But there are numerous exceptions: such as bee-mimicking hawkmoths, colorful luna moths, and colorful, day-flying scape moths.

At rest, butterflies tend to hold their wings either partially open or closed vertically over their bodies (like the sails of tiny sail boats). Most moths, however, hold their wings flat. Moths tend to be fatter and hairier than butterflies. And moths’ antennae are often broad, complex and feathery, while butterflies generally have simple antennae with clubbed tips.

Like a butterfly, a moth begins life as an egg laid on or near its host plant. The egg hatches into a tiny caterpillar, eating and growing until it transforms into a chrysalis. They go through complete metamorphosis into sexually active, winged adults. Some moths spin a cocoon from their silk glands, creating an additional layer of protection.

Both butterfly and moth caterpillars spend most of their time eating, and most species have a very specific plant on which they feed. For instance, the Monarch butterfly (PDF brochure on protecting Monarchs) caterpillar only feeds on the plant ‘Butterfly Weed’ Asclepias tuberosa, which is not to be confused with the flowering shrub ‘Butterfly Bush’ Buddleja, which is often misspelled Buddleia. Nectar from flowers and sugar from sap or overripe fruit provide most of the nutrition that moths need. They will also sip at mud puddles for mineral salts, and feed at animal scat, bird droppings, or animal carcasses to get amino acids and other nutrients.

At night, moths cannot use the sun to maintain body temperature like butterflies do. To regulate their temperature, moths use flight muscles to make small, rapid vibrations which looks like shivering. Moths are also covered with “heat insulating hairs.”

Butterflies depend on keen vision, but night-flying moths depend heavily on a developed sense of smell for feeding and reproduction. Male moths’ antennae contain complex scent organs capable of detecting pheromones produced by a receptive female.

Some moths have sound receptors. These “ears” are connected to nerve cells, tuned to the usual range of bat frequencies (40 kHz), and make it possible for moths to detect bats (a main predator) up to a distance of almost 100 feet (30 meters).

Moths outnumber butterflies by about 10:1.Some moths are significant pollinators, such as the noctuid moth and many hawkmoth species. These nocturnal pollinators are seldom seen. Moth-pollinated flowers are typically pale or white so they reflect moonlight. They usually have a strong, sweet perfume – a practical advertisement in the darkness. The scent is often released only at night. (Examples: night-blooming jasmine, evening primrose, yucca species, and Madonna lily).

Although adult moths are harmless, fascinating to watch, and beneficial as pollinators, moth larvae (caterpillars) are sometimes seen as garden pests; damaging plants’ leaves, stems and fruit with their voracious appetities.

Two infamous moth caterpillars are the tobacco hornworm (adult: sphinx moth) and the tomato hornworm (adult: 5-spot hawkmoth). Both are easily recognized by their large size (4-5 inches across) and characteristic “horn” on their rear. They feed on tomato, potato, eggplant and pepper plants. Other lesser-known “hornworm” species are generally innocuous, attracting little attention and causing little injury to garden plants.

The photo to the right is a tomato hornworm I found and pulled off of my tomato last summer. This guy is slightly curled up in the front and is young, I caught him before he got too large and completely ate my most favorite and precious heirloom tomato plant, ‘Pruden’s Purple.’ It’s been my experience that one good sized tomato hornworm caterpillar can eat a large tomato plant within a few days; so keep an eye out for them, or follow tip #3 below!Tomato Hornworm caterpillar

Hornworms as a Pest

If hornworms are a problem in your garden, here are a few toxic-free steps you can take to minimize the damage:

  1. Rototill the soil. Turning up the soil after harvest will destroy any pupae that may be there.
  2. Handpick caterpillars off your plants. Drop them in a bucket of water or snip them in half to kill them.
  3. Natural selection. One parasitic wasp, a natural enemy, lays its cream-colored, oval egg sacs on the hornworm’s back. If found, such worms should be left in the garden so the emerging wasps can parasitize other hornworms.
  4. Or, try this neat experiment: If you want to see the hornworms’ colorful adults, giant sphinx and hawkmoths, sequester the offspring on a few plants in the corner of your garden. Then wait and watch!

What You Can do to Help Our Butterfly and Moth Pollinators

  • Educate others about the importance of moths and butterflies as pollinators
  • Appreciate moths for their delicate and unique beauty.
  • Plant sweet-smelling, night-blooming flowers in your garden for moths.
  • Take an evening stroll through your garden to see which moths you might find flitting about from flower to flower.
  • Visit Pollinator Partnership for their free (24 page) pollinator planting guides (PDF), just type in your zip code to get the guide for your ecoregion. These free guides were funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the C.S. Fund, the Plant Conservation Alliance, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management with oversight by the Pollinator Partnership, in support of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign.
  • Plant milkweed! Monarch caterpillars need milkweeds to grow and develop. There are over 100 milkweed species that are native to North America, many of which are used by monarchs. To learn which species to plant in your region, and how to plant them, visit MonarchWatch.org to learn more.
  • Create a pollinator-friendly garden habitat in just a few simple steps.
  • Design your garden for a continuous succession of plants flowering from spring through fall. Check for the species or cultivars best suited to your area and gradually replace lawn grass with flower beds.
  • Plant native to your region using plants that provide nectar for adults plus food for insect larvae, such as milkweed for monarchs. If you do use non-native plants, choose ones that don’t spread easily, since these could become invasive. There are many beautiful flowers available to plant in your garden. Buyers BEWARE! Visit the US Forest Service Celebrating Wildflowers site to lean more.
  • Select old-fashioned varieties of flowers whenever possible because breeding has caused some modern blooms to lose their fragrance and/or the nectar/pollen needed to attract and feed pollinators. Try searching on Renee’s Garden for old fashioned flower varieties and heirlooms, I’ve gotten some pretty cool seeds from them over the years!
  • Install ‘houses’ for bats and native bees. For example, use wood blocks with holes or small open patches of mud. As little as 12 inches across is sufficient for some bees.
  • Avoid pesticides, even so-called “natural” ones such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). If you must use them, use the most selective and least toxic ones and apply them at night when most pollinators aren’t active. Visit Cornell University Ecology and Management of Invasive Plants
  • Supply water for all wildlife. A dripping faucet or a suspended milk carton with a pinhole in the bottom is sufficient for some insects. Other wildlife need a small container of water.
  • Provide water for butterflies without letting it become a mosquito breeding area. Either refill containers daily or bury a shallow plant saucer to its rim in a sunny area, fill it with coarse pine bark or stones and fill to overflowing with water. Butterflies can drink from the cracks between the filler but mosquito larvae have a hard time becoming established.
  • Share fun facts, such as 1) a tiny fly no bigger than a pinhead is responsible for the world’s supply of chocolate. Midges, tiny flies that live in damp, shady rainforests, are the only animals that can work their way through the complex cacao flower and pollinate it; and 2) one out of every three mouthfuls of food we eat and of the beverages we drink is delivered to us by pollinators; and 3) bees fly at about 7 mph and beat their wings 190 times per second.
It is imperative that we take immediate steps to help pollinator populations thrive. The beauty of the situation is that by supporting pollinators’ need for habitat, we support our own needs for food and support diversity in the natural world.
Other Gardening Posts
How to Use a Broadfork (instead of digging garden beds)

Whither Goest the Bees
Selecting and Using Tools: Shovels
Selling Your Produce Directly to Restaurants and Chefs
Are Fungi Good for Plants and Trees?

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