butterflies on flowers

Gardens can be transformed into mini-sanctuaries for wildlife and areas that attract birds, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. The process involves improving elements in the landscape and concentrating gardening efforts on creating beneficial habitats.

“My garden habitats are designed to sustain birds, bees, and butterflies,” said Janice Mahoney, a Northern Neck Master Gardener. “I ensure that I provide four essential ingredients: water, food, cover, and space.”

All wildlife species need water for drinking. Birds also need water for bathing. If birds cannot bathe, their feathers become dirty making flight difficult. The best water source for birds and butterflies is a birdbath no more than 3 inches deep. By adding pebbles or larger rocks to the basin, the birdbath becomes a water source for butterflies.

Mahoney states that food sources vary for birds, bees, and butterflies. “Birds eat nuts, berries, seeds, and insects. The insects provide essential proteins for adult birds and their fledglings. Some common seed sources are sunflower seeds and the seeds in the cones of pines and firs. Favorite berries are available from the American holly, dogwoods, and blueberry and blackberry bushes.”

Research indicates that more than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered. Bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, dragonflies, and damselflies are some of the most affected species. Insects provide protein especially to bird fledglings. Without insects, bird populations would decline. Insects pollinate approximately 80% of flowering plants including commercial agriculture.

Nectar from flowering plants is the main food source for bees. Common nectar plants in the Northern Neck are sunflowers, coneflowers, bee balm, zinnias, asters, and lantana.

“There are four thousand species of bees in North America, and bees are our most important and efficient pollinators,” continued Mahoney. “Bumble bees form hives but most native bees are solitary and lay their eggs in ground tunnels, hollow plant stems, or decaying wood.”

Honeybees are not native to the United States. They were imported from Europe for agricultural pollination and honey production.

Butterflies require two different food sources, host plants and nectar plants. Butterflies lay their eggs on a host plant, which then provides the food for the caterpillar as it goes through its metamorphosis into an adult butterfly. Each butterfly species has specific host plants for its eggs and caterpillars. Host plants for caterpillars include white clover, dill, fennel, parsley, and milkweed.

Bees on flowers

“Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed. You must plant milkweed if you want to attract monarchs to your yard,” Mahoney said. “Adding butterfly weed to your landscape will also add a bright note of orange to your plantings.”

Once the caterpillar transforms into an adult butterfly, the food resources are the same flowering nectar plants that feed the bees.

“Wildlife needs the space to find safe places to reproduce and to protect and nourish their young,” Mahoney continued. “Cover provides wildlife with shelter from extreme heat and cold, high winds, storms, and predators. Trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowering plants provide cover, as do rock piles, brush piles, cavities in trees, and birdhouses.” 

Mahoney concluded, “Remember, habitat gardeners manage the habitat, not the wildlife within it.”

Tiger Swallowtail butterfly

Where were the butterflies? 12/09/2020


Did you notice that this year butterflies seemed to appear in our gardens later than usual and in fewer numbers?

Where were they in the spring?

  • Did they just arrive late?
  • Are reduced populations cyclical?
  • Did the weather affect their numbers?
  • Will this be a continuing trend – the result of declining habitat, limited food sources, destruction of habitat, and/or increased pesticide use?

Globally, terrestrial insects appear to be declining at a rate of 9% per decade.

More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered.

Some of the insects most affected are bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, dragonflies, and damselflies.

Example: Between 2000-2009, the number of widespread butterfly species on farmed land in the UK fell by 58% (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4662585/)

Why Should We Worry?

  1. Insects = Protein (300 times more efficient than cows)

Although insects are near the bottom of the food chain, many creatures depend on them, directly or indirectly, as a food source.

Are they our food of the future?

3,000 ethnic groups in 130 countries already eat 2,086 species of insects. (Ramos-Elorduy, Julieta; Menzel, Peter (1998). Creepy crawly cuisine: the gourmet guide to edible insects)

  1. Insects = pollinators.

The plant world relies on their services. Approximately 80% of flowering plants are pollinated by insects.

Commercial agriculture depends on insects for pollination and crop production. 35% of the world’s crop pollination depends directly or indirectly on insects.  Insect pollinators contribute $29 billion to the US economy

  1. Insects = decomposers

Insects recycle, break down biomass, and generate organic matter that fertilizes plants.

  1. Insects = biological controls

Their value as natural pest control is estimated at $5.4 billion in the U.S. alone


Look through the slide presentation about “The Lost Summer of 2020: A Perfect Time to Plant Your Butterfly Garden!” Lost Summer Butterfly Slide Show