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Butterflies: More Than Just Beautiful Wings

Butterflies are the beauties of our gardens and landscapes. Their beautiful colors and delicate wings bring life and color into our lives. But what purpose do they serve in our environment?

Butterflies are beautiful but mighty workers. They help our environment more than we realize!

PC: John Oates Photography

Butterflies are Pollinators

Butterflies are attracted to bright flowers and need nectar to eat. When they spot a beautiful bright flower, they land and eat the sweet nectar produced from the flower.

When they land, their bodies collect pollen on their abdomens and carry it to other plants. This process helps fruits, vegetables, and flowers produce more seeds so there are more plants!

The majority of fruits, flowers, and plants rely on pollinators to help reproduce.

Butterflies and other pollinators such as bees, moths, birds, and bats pollinate over 75% of the world’s plants. The world depends on how hard these pollinators work to keep our bountiful fruits, veggies, and other plants fruitful! Pollination helps strengthen our ecosystems and promote life of all kinds, sustaining diversity in nature.

painted lady butterfly
Painted lady butterfly

Butterflies = Your Garden is Healthy

Butterflies are sensitive to their environment, so they seek healthy and clean areas that can help them. That means if your garden or landscape is not providing the requirements for butterflies like copious amounts of milkweed or other native plants, they will not visit or stay in your landscape.

If your area attracts butterflies, those butterflies will also bring their friends such as native bees and birds.

Butterflies are in Trouble

This past summer the magnificent monarch butterfly was “red-listed”. This means that monarch is closer to extinction than ever.

monarch butterfly on lantana flower
PC: John Oates Photography

Due to climate change, pesticide usage, lack of trees and native plants as a whole, butterflies like the monarch and others cannot find a viable habitat to call home. If they cannot find a viable habitat – a place that provides food, shelter, and other crucial aspects – they die.

Here’s How You Can Help

We need all hands on deck to help the wonderful monarch butterfly and other butterfly species. Here are a few ways you can help them in your home or local neighborhood.

Common milkweed

Research all you can about monarchs in your area. What they eat, when they migrate, their migration patterns, anything that will help you gain knowledge. This will help you better understand the butterfly and its needs year-round.

Consider planting native plants and flowers as well as native milkweed to give butterflies a place to eat and rest. Milkweed is the only source of food that monarch caterpillars can eat. If you have plenty of milkweed, you are giving monarch butterflies places to lay their eggs so that when the caterpillars emerge, they will have plenty to eat.

red admiral butterfly in feeding dish
Red admiral butterfly
PC: John Oates Photography

Butterflies need a spot to drink as well. Because they are small and delicate, they need water droplets so they don’t drown or get their wings wet. Consider purchasing shallow dishes like a flower pot draining dish, pie tin, or even a shallow bird bath to give butterflies a safe place to hydrate.

Butterflies play an important role in our ecosystem. They help pollinate and keep our gardens and landscapes full of life! It’s important to realize their impact and how we can help them.

swallowtail butterfly sculpture in snowy scene
PC: John Oates Photography

Want to learn more about beautiful butterflies? Visit the Garden and see the life cycle of the Swallowtail Butterfly in our Bug B&B display as part of our Habitat exhibit!

Habitat was developed by Smithsonian Gardens and is made available by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.

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