Save that puddle, it’s butterfly season already!

We’re already in the middle of April and I’ve just found out that butterfly season is already well underway. These bedazzled bugs start making their appearance in Canada as early as March in balmy British Columbia. It won’t be long before Ontario is in peak butterfly mode. What’s the panic, you may ask? It’s surprising what butterflies need to get through their mind-boggling lives (you know, being a caterpillar, being a cocoon, then flying around, etc.). After doing a bunch of research, I’ve discovered that when you’re deep into spring garden cleaning it’s easy to wind up hindering rather than helping these wonders.

Surprising ways to help butterflies right now

1. Don’t get rid of that mud puddle. Butterflies visit mud puddles to load up on the minerals and salts from the soil. It’s all part of their approach to a balanced butterfly diet. So resist the urge to drain or sweep away that last remaining spring puddle.

2. Relocate critter poop. Some butterflies like to mix a bit of feces with their flowers. [SIDENOTE: I actually discovered this accidentally when I found a big pile of what I think was bear poop covered in butterflies. I’ll spare you the photo.] Male butterflies in particular love having a good chowdown on some poop. What they’re getting are salts and amino acids that blossoms don’t offer. So if you find a deposit from some local wildlife while you’re cleaning up the lawn, try flicking it into a discreet spot rather than bagging it up for the bin. And if you want to dive into this weirdness a little more, I highly recommend the educational (and funny) blog post by none other than The Butterfly Lady (I kid you not) entitled Disgusting Butterfly Eating Habits.

3. Think hot and flat-topped when doing your garden nursery shopping this spring. Butterflies are attracted to flowers in the warm range of the colour wheel: red, orange, yellow, pink and purple. Flowers that are the most easily accessible are those that are flat-topped or clustered and have short flower tubes.

Spring shopping tip: Stock up on hosts and nectar producers

We all know about filling up our garden beds with lots of nectar-producing flowers but (as I always have to remind myself every spring) you can’t have a butterfly without having a caterpillar first. So think about host plants that you can plant alongside the nectar plants.

For instance, the Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) butterfly, shown below, can be found all over southern Ontario and don’t migrate. When they’re caterpillars their hosts include black-eyed susans and asters. But when they turn into butterflies, their nectar plants still include asters but also milkweed and dogbane.

An orange and black butterfly

A Pearl Crescent butterfly perched on a floral head of Tuberous Indian-plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), photographed in July on the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario.

Trees are butterfly food, too

If you’re spring shopping for trees, think about investing in some that are butterfly friendly.

Cherry trees, willows and serviceberry are hosts to all kinds of butterflies, including the Viceroy (Limenitis archippus). The Viceroy can be spotted all over central and eastern Canada but is often mistaken for a Monarch; they have very similar colourings and a similar wing pattern but the Viceroy is a little smaller than a Monarch. Have a heart for the Viceroy because, unlike the Monarch, they stay at home all year long, overwintering in rolled up leaves.

Elm trees were devastated in Ontario but new elm varieties available now can help gardeners replace their lost ones and boost the diets of a variety of butterflies, including the Eastern Comma.

Remember that not all caterpillars turn into butterflies. I know moths have a bad rep but a lot are quite harmless and have their own, if somewhat mysterious ecological role to play. The wonderfully fuzzy individual shown below is a Spotted Tussock Moth (Lophocampa maculata) in his guise as a caterpillar. His nickname is apt: Woolly Bear. We found him (erm, her?) just outside of our cottage on the Bruce Peninsula. What these guys love are the leaves from birches, maples, oaks, and poplars. They’re not known to do any damage to the trees. The only warning about these guys is that, despite the fact that they’re adorable in their caterpillar stage, you don’t want to pick one up. Handling one can prove irritating to the skin.

Caterpillar on leaf

Shown above: a Spotted Tussock Moth (Lophocampa maculata) in its caterpillar stage, photographed right outside our cottage door on the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario.

The monarchs are on their way!

Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) tend to arrive in Ontario a little later–usually from mid- to late June. As of today, they’ve been sighted in the southeastern half of the United States and along the west coast of California. The Journey North website has an interactive map if you’d like to track them yourself as they make their way towards Canada. So make sure you’ve got your butterfly welcome mat rolled out for them, too. Who said making mud puddles was just kid stuff!

BTW: The site also has constantly adjusting maps for when and where Robins are first heard and when they are first sighted (Spoiler Alert: They’re already in southern Canada), as well as maps for where tulips are blooming, where maple syrup is first starting to run and where the first earthworm sightings have been. I have to admit it never occurred to me that North America’s first earthworm sighting of the season might be of interest. But clearly there are lots of people who are interested.

Caterpillar and milkweed

A monarch caterpillar enjoying a milkweed, photographed in Ontario in July.

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