Most of us have had great experiences with butterflies. These delicate, mystical insects capture our attention as they flit from flower to flower, especially in the springtime. But have you ever stopped to wonder: what do butterflies eat? Butterflies need nutrients just like every other living thing, in order to survive. So how do they do it?
Butterflies do not have mouths like other insects or animals. They have a proboscis which limits them to a liquid diet. It’s kind of like a built-in straw. They drink nectar from flowers, tree sap that has oozed out the bark, and juices from rotting fruit. Some butterflies drink from water puddles, sweat, manure, and mud.
If you’ve ever been curious about what butterflies eat, you’ve come to the right place. A butterfly’s diet is a fluid-only one – not one that would likely appeal to any of us. Their nutrients are absorbed from some unlikely places.
If you have kids, The Family Butterfly Book has great information about 40 species of butterflies.
Here are some fun facts you might not have known about how butterflies eat.
Fun Facts About How Butterflies Eat
Let’s look at some quick fun facts about how butterflies eat and the anatomy needed to do so.
Did you know that:
- Butterflies like salty liquids. They will sometimes land on humans to drink their sweat.
- Butterflies also love sugary foods.
- Butterflies eat the same things as moths.
- Some butterflies will eat other insects.
- Butterflies move from flower to flower to eat.
- Butterflies don’t have mouths or teeth.
It is important to know how butterflies eat if we want to know what they eat. Butterflies have no opening mouth or teeth. They have an adapted tongue or protuberance that resembles a straw. This is known as a proboscis and is usually carried curled up. When the butterfly is ready to feed, the proboscis uncurls, and liquid is sucked up.
Interesting facts about a butterfly’s proboscis
- When a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, the proboscis is in two halves which join to form the tube structure.
- A butterfly’s proboscis is surprisingly long. The majority are up to one and a half times the length of the butterfly’s body. This length allows them to extend it into different shaped flowers to access the nectar.
- The proboscis curls and uncurls using hydrostatic pressure.
What do butterflies eat?
Next, let’s look at what these beautiful creatures eat. If they don’t have any teeth or mouths, what food can they eat?
Butterflies are excellent foragers, and they get their food from many places in the wild. For example, the beautiful flowers we see them flit from, especially in the spring. But they can also find food from rotting fruit, mud puddles, trees, animal feces, ditches, and more.
That probably sounds gross to a human, but for a butterfly, they can get all the nutrients they need from these locations. As foragers, they learn to live off the land and find their food where they can.
Where do butterflies get their food?
Butterflies use their proboscis to suck up liquids such as nectar from flowers. Nectar is made up of several sugars – glucose, sucrose, and fructose. Surprisingly it also contains carbohydrates and amino acids which are the building blocks for proteins.
Butterflies also drink tree sap which consists of sugars, proteins, amino acids, and enzymes. Another food source for butterflies or ripe, over-ripe, or rotting fruit that supplies a variety of vitamins.
Why do butterflies sit on manure piles?
Have you ever seen a butterfly on a pile of animal dung and thought, “Why do they do that?” There’s an answer for this behavior that makes sense.
Butterflies indulge in a behavior known as puddling. They drink fluids from puddles, gravel puddles, mud, sweat, other animals’ tears, and manure. This behavior is more common in male butterflies, although sometimes females also puddle. The aim is to gain minerals and salts for reproduction.
One essential nutrient that is obtained from puddling is sodium. Sodium is not found in any other food sources on the butterfly menu. It is a crucial mineral necessary for reproduction, digestion, excretion, and flight.
Males puddle more than females as their metabolism rate is higher due to the need to produce sperm and fly around in search of females to mate with. The males pass a package of sodium and amino acids together with the spermatophore to the female during mating.
The transfer of sodium and amino acids aids in the success of the reproduction efforts and ensures the survival of the eggs.
Males can puddle for anything from a few minutes to more than an hour. Once the nutrient fluid is sucked up, it undergoes a complicated filtering system in the butterfly’s body to extract the necessary minerals.
The excess water is ejected from the butterfly’s body at the back end of the abdomen. The squirt of water can be so forcefully ejected that it lands several body lengths away from the butterfly.
Some butterflies that puddle for a long time seem to become inebriated by the intake of the minerals and salts, making them unaware of their surroundings. During this period of intoxication, they are vulnerable to predation.
Unusual Butterfly Feeding Practices
Some butterflies have unusual and unexpected food preferences. Charaxes butterflies are the alcoholics in the butterfly world. They are highly attracted to fermenting fruit and forgo the attractions of flower nectar. They also include feces and rotting carcasses in their diet. Ewww!
But it gets even weirder. Adult milkweed (Danainae) butterflies scratch open milkweed caterpillars’ bodies and drink the body fluids. The adults have claw-like appendages that they use to make holes in the caterpillar.
Harvester butterflies have sharp cutting ends on their proboscis, which they use to make wounds on woolly aphids. The butterflies suck the bodily fluids out of the aphids.
Usually, we think of butterflies as fragile, innocent insects. But just like everything else in nature, they have to eat, too! Here’s more information about what caterpillars eat.
Do Butterflies Prefer Specific Plants?
Actually, they do! While butterflies will use any flower nectar if there is none other available, they do have preferences. Here are some general guidelines of their preferences:
- Anise Swallowtail butterflies prefer columbines, asters, and lantana.
- Pipevine Swallowtails like azalea, honeysuckle, and orchids.
- Monarch butterflies can be found around azaleas, red clover, zinnias, daisies, and rotting fruit.
- Variegated Fritillary butterflies are attracted to hibiscus and meadow flowers.
- Painted Lady butterflies are not fussy and can be found on many different fields and garden flowers.
- Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies prefer lobelia and purple coneflowers.
- American copper butterflies like dandelions, daisies, milkweed, and clover.
How to attract butterflies to your garden (11 flowers they love!)
If you want to attract butterflies to your garden, a great way to do this is by providing a food source. Here are some plants that are great for a butterfly garden include:
- Asters (Symphotrichum)
- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)
- Bee balm (Monarda)
- Butterfly bush (Buddleia)
- Blazing star (Liatris)
- Catmint (Nepeta)
- False indigo (Baptisia)
- Coneflower (Echinacea)
- Goldenrod (Solidago)
- Lavender (Lavandula)
- Milkweed, Butterfly weed (Asclepias)
- Sage (Salvia)
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, as there are many more flowers that butterflies will be attracted to, but these are some common ones that are also easy to care for. They LOVE flower fields, where they can go from bloom to bloom and get their nectar.
Adult butterflies can adapt to using sap and nectar from different plants, but this is not the case for butterfly caterpillars.
What Do Butterfly Caterpillars Eat?
Butterfly caterpillars are usually adapted to eating only one or a few different plant types known as host plants. The exclusivity of their feeding needs results in the specific distribution of certain butterfly species.
- Giant Swallowtail caterpillars have rue, citrus, prickly ash, and hop trees as their hosts.
- Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars are very exclusive and have only one host plant – the pawpaw.
- Monarch caterpillars only use milkweed as host plants.
- Mourning cloak caterpillars are hosted by elms, willow trees, and poplars.
As can be seen, some of these plants only grow in certain parts of the world, limiting the range of butterfly species. It’s a good idea to do some research on the butterflies in your area and what plants are best for them. In general, native plants are good for insects like butterflies and other pollinators. So, that’s just one more reason to plant natives whenever you can.
What Do Butterflies Eat? Conclusion
Butterflies can only drink fluids, but despite this, they manage to ingest all the nutrients they need to complete their life cycles and continue the species. Generally, butterflies drink nectar, tree sap, and over-ripe fruit, but some have other feeding preferences. To entice butterflies to your garden, you need to include specific plants for the butterfly caterpillars that are host specific.
Did you learn something new today about what or how butterflies eat?
Adriana Copaceanu is a passionate nature lover living in the country on her dream property where she grows vegetables, lavender, and wildflowers that she shares with the wildlife they attract. When she's not in the garden, she loves spending time with her chickens and planning her next nature project. Check your her books below: