I love taking little trips to different parts of Virginia to find different species of wildlife. But in Chesapeake you really don’t even need to leave home to find interesting things. I have lived in a pretty typical suburban neighborhood in Chesapeake for almost eight years, and during that time I’ve seen 96 different species of birds in my yard, and 53 different species of butterflies, including this Tiger Swallowtail (Virginia’s state insect). Not bad!

I also “raise and release” different kinds of butterflies right in my yard; this has become a popular past-time among many butterfly enthusiasts. Since 2005, I have raised and released a total of 2954 butterflies of 19 different species; I counted the totals today just for this blog. (Hey, I’m a librarian and I keep records of everything!) I raise these butterflies from caterpillars I find on the plants in my yard. I collect the caterpillars, place them in a screen cage, and feed them until they go into their chrysalis stage. After a couple of weeks in chrysalis, a new butterfly emerges.

To illustrate, here are some photos of the different stages of a Question Mark butterfly I raised; on the left, the caterpillars I found on my hops vine; on the right, the chrysalis, and in the center, the adult butterfly:

It’s not just by chance that the different kinds of caterpillars I collect find their way to my yard; I started the process by planting the appropriate native plants that attract the butterflies that lay the eggs. Each different species of butterfly lays its eggs only on a certain type of plant (called the “host plant”), because the caterpillars that hatch from the eggs can only survive by eating that particular plant. One of the host plants for the Question Mark butterfly is the hops vine, so I planted one for the purpose of attracting them to my yard.

The trick to getting butterflies in your garden, then, is two-fold: First, you want flowering “nectar” plants for adult butterflies to feed on, which most people know about (If you can only have only one flowering shrub in your yard, make it either a Butterfly Bush or Lantana; you will be amply rewarded with butterflies). Second, you want the butterfly’s’ host plants if you want them to lay eggs and produce caterpillars.

How do you know what the host plants are for different species? The two best sources I know are 1) a list of Tidewater butterflies and their host plants published on the Butterfly Society of Virginia’s website (http://www.butterflysocietyofva.org/ ; take the link to “Host Plants in VA”), and 2) a wonderful book by Doug Tallamy called “Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife In Our Gardens.” This highly readable and surprisingly entertaining book is full of information about the kinds of plants that attract different kinds of wildlife including butterflies. I highly recommend it.

A symbiotic relationship has evolved over countless millennium between wildlife and plant life, so it’s not surprising to learn that most of the butterfly host plants are plants that are native to their particular region. If you plant a plant that comes to us from China, our adult butterflies might drink nectar from its flowers, but our caterpillars will not be able to survive on its foliage and the species will not reproduce.

In my garden I have a mix of flowering plant for nectar, and native host plants for the caterpillars; I’ve planted a Pawpaw tree which is the host plant for the Zebra Swallowtail, two Spicebushes for the Spicebush Swallowtail, milkweed for Monarchs, passion vine for fritillaries, fennel and rue for Black Swallowtails, Wild Cherry trees for Tiger Swallowtails and Red-spotted Purple butterflies, a Hackberry tree for American Snout, and many more. Most nurseries do not carry a wide variety of native plant stock, but you can purchase most of the plants you need at plant sales hosted by the local Master Gardeners organizations (http://www.vmga.net/), the Butterfly Society of Virginia (http://www.butterflysocietyofva.org/) , and the Virginia Native Plant Society (http://www.vnps.org/). I have also had success ordering native plants online through nurseries that specialize in natives.

Here are pictures of some of my “children,” the caterpillars and the adults:

The Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar you see here (above) uses “fright” as a defense. The “eyes” that you see are supposed to make the caterpillar look like a snake and scare away potential predators. The “eyes” are not eyes at all; they are clever pigmentation on the skin, including the white “sparkles” in the black “pupils.” This strange-looking little thing turns into the gorgeous butterfly you see on the right.

The spectacular Zebra Swallowtail uses only leaves of the Pawpaw tree as its host plant. This is the first year I finally found some of its caterpillars (above) on my Pawpaw tree, and I’m thrilled to have raised and released ten of them so far.

The alien-looking creature below is the larva (caterpillar) of the Silver-spotted Skipper. Be sure to look at this one in an enlarged version (just click on the picture to do this), because it is a strange-looking little guy. These skippers eat Wisteria leaves — but not the invasive, non-native Wisteria that you see everywhere in April and May. We have a Wisteria that is less aggressive, and is native to Virginia, and this is the type this skipper needs.

Below is an American Lady caterpillar on its host plant, Pearly Everlasting (it also uses Cudweed and Hollyhocks as a host plant). The adult (right) is a very common butterfly in Tidewater, but it has a rare beauty if you look closely.

The two caterpillars most commonly and easily raised by people in the Chesapeake area are Monarchs (host plant is Milkweed) and Eastern Black Swallowtails, which use plants in the carrot family as their host (these include fennel, parsley, Queen Anne’s Lace, dill, and rue). Of all the butterflies I’ve raised and released, almost 2000 of them have been of these two species. If you’re interested in learning how to raise and release butterflies, these are the species you should start with; plant some parsley or fennel and the Black Swallowtails (above) will find you. Just remember to plant enough to feed these little eating machines for a couple of weeks.

These are just a few of the gems from my garden. Some people wonder why one would bother to raise the caterpillars themselves rather than just let Mother Nature take her natural course. The benefit to the butterflies is that they have a far greater chance of surviving to adulthood; in the natural world most do not survive due to predation and parasites. Are we upsetting the global balance by releasing more butterflies than nature intended? I believe the answer is no; the numbers we release into the world are less than a drop in the ocean. But we do have a few more butterflies in our gardens than we did before, and we have the joy and satisfaction of witnessing nature’s miracles first-hand.

If you are interested in trying your hand at this rewarding and fulfilling process, feel free to send your questions to me. I have a lot more information and suggestions that I can share with you that will help you get started and ensure the success of your butterfly-rearing.

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2 thoughts on “A Chesapeake Butterfly Garden

  1. Birdingva,to your question,there are so many Rufous hummers this year,well you know i am really amazed at the numbers and i guess its been like that every winter,as this is my first winter leaving out feeders,and that is why i was noticing them,i have talked to friends at the south end of the island last week wright when the snow stopped and the sun found its way through the clouds and as we were talking she looked though the window and there were three Rufous chasing each other madly around the feeder,they are truly amazing,but not one Anna’s,that she or i have seen this winter,cheers from Salt Spring.

  2. I have just found your post after googling “caterpillar eating hops vine”. I, too, am a librarian and you have inspired me to try to raise some of the caterpillars at the library where I work in the children’s room. I think the kids will be fascinated. Thanks for the very informative post!

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