Getting to Know Butterflies

Wednesday, June 28, 2017
Butterflies are one of the most loved and abundant species on the planet. They can be found almost everywhere you look: fields, meadows, rainforests, deserts, high atop the mountains, and even the Arctic Tundra. Of the over 20,000 different types of butterflies found worldwide (about twice as many as there are types of birds), about 700 are found North of Mexico. In Southern Ontario we have about 56 species that can be commonly found here.

The perfect butterfly habitat is one that is full of sunshine and natural, varied, vegetation. Open areas, such as fields, meadows and prairies, as well as brush-land, are high on their home shopping list. They are most likely to be found in more complex habitats such as meadows adjacent to a woodland. Variety is the key to successful butterfly life.

As insects, butterflies have the traditional three-part body, comprised of a head, thorax and abdomen, protected by an exoskeleton. They have two pairs of wings, three pairs of legs, and two antenna they use for smell, navigation and balance. Their two large eyes are comprised of thousands of tiny lenses that can detect even the smallest amount of movement. These high-tech eyes even allow them to see in the ultraviolet range!

Life Cycle

A butterfly lays her eggs on specific host plants (different for each species). These plants provide the necessary food for the larval (caterpillar) stage. Some species lay one egg per plant while others will lay all their eggs in one place. Placement of the eggs also varies from butterfly to butterfly, with some preferring the undersides of leaves; others the bud of a flower; or even the base of a tree.

 Painted Lady Egg (left) © Harald Süpfle  | Monarch Egg (right) © Kristen Martyn

Once laid, the eggs usually hatch within a week. When hatched, the caterpillar has only one task: eat. All of its time is spent eating, growing, and eating some more. As it grows, its old skin (exoskeleton) splits and sheds to reveal a new, larger skin to grow into. This new skin is slightly baggy to allow it room to grow before a new exoskeleton is needed. This can happen four to five times over the course of only two to three weeks.

Fully grown, the caterpillar begins to look for a suitable anchor spot to begin its transformation. Often the site chosen is not on its original host plant, but instead may be a twig or a blade of grass far away from its birth plant. Once it has chosen the location, it attaches itself to a support and pupates (metamorphizes) into a chrysalis where it will being its final transformation into an adult butterfly. While inside the chrysalis, the tissues and structures of the caterpillar are broken down and over time replaced with those of the adult butterfly. On average this takes one to two weeks, but if disturbed, the process can enter a resting stage and hold off for months, or even over an entire winter if necessary.

Monarch Cocoon during Metamorphosis (left) and just before emerging (right)
Once the adult butterfly is fully formed, the chrysalis splits open and the adult butterfly emerges. There is no "baby butterfly" stage, instead all butterflies emerge fully grown and ready to take on the world. To help the wings spread out after the tight confines of the chrysalis, fluid is pumped through the veins in the wings to help them unfurl; the butterfly then rests while the wings harden in the sunshine.

Adult butterflies, on average, live two to four weeks. However, some smaller species may only live up to a week; while larger butterflies, such as overwintering Monarchs, can live up to nine months.

Attracting Butterflies to Your Yard

To attract more butterflies to your yard think native. Native plants are the most important thing for butterflies. They must ensure they have the proper host plants to lay their eggs and to feed their young, as well as keep them fed as adults. Don't assume what feeds the caterpillar feeds the butterfly. Quite often the adults feed from different plants than they were born on so diversity is key. Plants such as Aster, Milkweed, Parsley, Pearly Everlasting, Rockcress, Purpletop Triden, Snapdragon, Sunflower, Violet, Black Cherry, and Chokecherry are common butterfly plants. Be sure to look for local varieties when choosing plants for your butterfly garden. 

Butterfly Puddlers © Wild Birds Unlimited Barrie
To further enhance your backyard habitat, you can provide butterfly houses, feeders and even drinking stations, or "puddlers" (shown above). The more elements you can combine into your yard, the more likely butterflies are to come and take up residence.

This year, we're excited to be hosting both Monarch and Painted Lady butterflies in the store. Keep watch on our Facebook page for when they arrive and to monitor their progress until they are released. Want to learn more about these two species? Continue reading below!

Monarch Butterfly

The Monarch is probably the best known of all butterflies. Its showy orange and black wings are dotted with small white spots. It has a relatively large wingspan at 93-105 mm.  Part of the Danaiinae family of milkweed butterflies (meaning it only lays its eggs on milkweed plants), it is believed they choose milkweed as eating it in the larval stage makes them extremely bitter in taste to predators. In fact, most birds learn to avoid them altogether after just one attempt.

The Monarch's caterpillar is easily recognized with its black, white and yellow stripes and its chrysalis is a striking jade colour with golden spots, turning clear just before the butterfly is ready to emerge. Most Monarchs live an average of two to six weeks, with those who overwinter in Mexico living up to nine months.
A Monarch caterpillar chews on some Milkweed
The Monarch’s range extends from Central America to Southern Ontario and Quebec. They are extreme migrants, travelling up to 3,000 km between breeding grounds (some travel an astonishing 80 km in a single day). However, no one individual is likely to complete the round trip. They stop to breed multiple times as they migrate North, with the new broods of young continuing northward. It is the last brood of the summer that makes the return trip to their wintering ground in central Mexico beginning in the late summer and fall. Remarkably, most of these returning butterflies have never been there before, making the trip solely on instinct alone.

A struggling species, many cities have begun conservation programs to help the Monarch butterfly survive. You can read more about Barrie's program here.

Popular host plants for Monarch caterpillars here in Southern Ontario include common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).

Painted Lady Butterfly

© By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (Self-photographed) via Wikimedia Commons
The Painted Lady is a prolific traveller, occupying every continent but Antarctica and South America. As part of the Cynthia group of butterflies (Vanessa Cardui) it is also commonly known as the Thistle Butterfly, after its favourite food.

One of the most common butterflies in North America, its large wingspan (42-66 mm) and pointed, deep orange, black-spotted wings are a familiar sight. While similar at quick glance to the Monarch, it can be identified by the black and white corners of its wings, with five spots on the black forewing tips and a lack of any dots in the orange areas of the wing. On its dorsal (back) side of the wings, it has four small eye-spots that are black in colour.

By Alvesgaspar (Own work (own photo)) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
© By Alvesgaspar (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
During migration, the Painted Lady can reach speeds of up to 48 km/h and will travel over 160 km a day. Their habit of flying low (6-12 feet off the ground) during migration makes then very easy to spot, but unfortunately also very susceptible to collisions with cars. Their migration is one way,  relying on new spring migrants from the South to repopulate the area each year. In Canada, there can be two to three generations annually with the first appearing in May from the South, followed by locally hatched butterflies from June through October. Very rarely, they have been known to survive here over the winter in the chrysalis stage when the season was very mild.

Painted Lady Caterpillar © Harald Süpfle via Wikimedia Commons
More than 100 host plants have been noted for their yellowish green caterpillars. Favorites include thistles (Asteraceae), hollyhock and mallow (Malvaceae), and various legumes (Fabaceae). Migrants may use fiddleneck and other spring annuals as well.

I hope you enjoyed this look into two of our favourite butterflies. Don't forget, be sure to check out our Facebook page to keep an eye on our in-house butterflies' progress!

 Happy Birding (and Butterflying)!
~ Jen

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