What do butterflies eat?

Frederike
Frederike
Frederike
Frederike

I am a student of agricultural sciences and a real country kid. At home, I love tending my small vegetable garden and spending time out in nature. When not outdoors, I love to write. Beyond gardening and writing, however, I am particularly passionate about wildlife.

Favourite fruit: currants and raspberries
Favourite vegetables: salsify, savoy cabbage and potatoes

Most gardeners are keen to welcome butterflies into their garden. But which flowers are best? Here are some tips on attracting butterflies to your home!

butterfly eating nectar
Everybody knows butterflies – but what do they live on? [Photo: Patrick Foto/ Shutterstock.com]

For many, butterflies symbolise elegance and beauty, and they are especially popular with children. No wonder, then, that many gardeners want to attract butterflies to their gardens. The best way to do this is to offer the butterflies a wide range of flowers. But what do butterflies actually eat, and which plants are most attractive to them? Here is everything you need to know about the feeding habits of butterflies and how you can best support them.

What do butterflies like to eat?

A butterfly’s diet depends on its species. Butterfly species native to Europe, like the Common Brimstone and most moths, feed on nectar. They eat with their mouth part, the so-called proboscis, which acts like a straw and curls up between meals. This technique allows the butterfly to feed on many plants that are inaccessible to other beneficial garden insects, like bees, meaning butterflies are an essential pollinator for many plants. 

Most butterfly species look for food in March and April; there are few species that overwinter in the UK. Between November and February, however, you may see Brimstone, Small tortoiseshell, and Peacock butterflies, as well as Twenty-plume and Red-green carpet moths, amongst others. Normally, butterflies hibernate in winter. However, if the weather is exceptionally warm, these special butterfly species forage.

butterfly feeding on nectar
Most native butterfly species feed on nectar [Photo: Dhapa Nitaben Harshaddhai/ Shutterstock.com]

Each butterfly and moth species has a different diet. Some, such as the Emperor moth (Saturnia), do not eat anything during their short lifespan and therefore have stunted proboscises. Other butterflies prefer to feed on plant juices or fallen fruit. Some even feed on honeydew secreted by aphids. In tropical regions, exotic butterfly species consume tears, sweat or even blood! Thankfully, however, in Europe, this is not common.

Which plants provide food for butterflies?

To attract many butterflies to your garden, you will need many plants. Painted lady butterflies enjoy alfalfa (Medicago sativa), red clover (Trifolium pratense) and thistles (Carduus acanthoides). Common brimstone butterflies, on the other hand, prefer purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and plants from the genus Centaurea. Meanwhile, hawk moths have long proboscis, which they use to eat the hidden nectar of hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium) and phlox (Phlox). And the silver Y moth will feast on just about any flower!

phlox as source of food for butterflies
Hawk moths for example like to feed on phlox [Photo: Sari ONeal/ Shutterstock.com]

Butterfly-friendly plants like the common heather (Calluna vulgaris), dock (Rumex) and dandelion (Taraxacum), are enjoyed by several species. However, instead of designing your own plant mix, a ready-to-go seed mixture is perfect.

You can also grow perennial plants to attract butterflies. The most popular include willow (Salix) and sloe (Prunus spinosa). Butterflies also like to feed on the nectar of blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus) and lilacs (Buddleja). In all, the greater diversity in your garden, the more butterflies will visit.

After all that food, a butterfly will surely need a drink. But what do butterflies drink? In fact, butterflies get most of what they need by absorbing liquid nectar and other plant juices. Only on particularly hot days, or to balance their mineral intake, do butterflies occasionally visit small puddles.

Can you feed butterflies?

In general, the best food for butterflies is the food they can collect themselves. A colourful flower meadow – a garden full of butterfly-friendly plants, is the best way to feed a butterfly. 

If you find a butterfly that is clearly exhausted, a quick snack may help. Dissolve one-part sugar in four parts water, dip in a clean sponge, and leave it for butterfly to suck out using its proboscis.

dock as butterfly friendly plant
Dock is a popular source of food with many butterfly species [Photo: Paul Whorton/ Shutterstock.com]

Avoid bowls or plates with sugar water. The liquid could get onto the butterfly’s wings and stick them together. Reach for an orange, instead. Cut the fruit into centimetre-thick slices and lay them on a kitchen towel so that the excess fruit juice cannot stick to the butterflies’ wings. Wait a moment, and the butterflies will suck out the sweet fruit juice in no time!

In summer, it is easy to spot a butterfly. But where do they go in winter? Read our article on overwintering butterflies to find out!

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