Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Wild butterflies are one of the many wonders of a family hike or a family day outdoors. Whenever we spot one on a hike, my girls go ooh and aah like it’s a lovely surprise. Of course, butterflies are beautiful insects whose wings are true works of art but beyond making the world a prettier place, they are also essential to the plant world as pollinators and incredibly important in nature. So yes, butterflies are pretty special and where to see butterflies in nature is often a big question mark as wild butterflies are by essence wild and incredibly shy. It’s a question mark but it’s not impossible. There’s science behind ’em butterflies and to make your next family day out a colorful insect quest, here are a few things you can do to increase your chances of seeing butterflies in nature.
There are approximately 20,000 species of butterflies in the world and they are present on all continents except Antarctica. That means that you have a good chance to find butterflies next to where you live! In terms of distribution, about 725 species live in North American north of Mexico, roughly 2,000 species are found in Mexico, and 55 or so resident species of butterfly thrive in the UK. As you can see, where you live impacts directly the number of butterflies you can hope to see on a regular day out.
To find out about your local butterflies, these regional resources provide good pointers and seasonal sighting records:
Besides local butterflies and depending on the time of year, you can expect to see migrating butterflies such as the Monarch butterflies (from Canada to Mexico via the USA) or the Painted Lady butterflies (Africa to Arctic Circle via Western Europe).
In nature, adult butterflies can be found flying and flitting around a variety of plants and flowers but flowers are a big favorite for their nectar (with individual preferences depending on the species). In fact, like my daughter, butterflies have a very sweet tooth or rather, sweet feet, as butterflies have smell and taste sensors on their feet to know what’s good to eat (my daughter just goes by candy color and shape). They then use a straw-like mouth part to sip their food as a liquid.
Regular spots to find flowers include:
For a list of some common and/or popular backyard garden butterflies and their favorite nectar plants, check out Joyful Butterfly’s What Do Butterflies Eat? Nectar Plants (Generally).
Besides flower nectar, butterflies also like fruit such as sweet sap from the trunk of citrus trees or sweet decaying or rotting fruit. Look for butterflies on blackberry brambles or patches when the flowers are in bloom as they attract some butterflies.
Less delightful to our tastebuds, some butterflies sip minerals from animal manure or dung and sip fluids from wet mud or sand. Young male adults are also often seen congregating around mud puddles in large groups (it’s called “puddling”).
Last but not least, some butterfly species live in woodlands and can be spotted (with very good eyes) in sunny glades and woodland edges.
Being cold-blooded creatures, butterflies tend to be more active as it gets sunnier, which means that you’re more likely to observe them at length during cooler times of the day. In the morning or early evening, butterflies are often sitting out with their wings spread wide to absorb heat from the sun. Once their bodies have heated up as the morning progresses, you’ll see them flitting around and feeding in abundance. You know how the saying goes, the early bird gets the worm. If you want a chance to catch a butterfly still, early or late in the day are best.
Additional note. If you are looking for butterflies that live in trees (such as the cluster of monarch butterflies in my picture), don’t forget binoculars and a very good camera lens. Butterflies tend to blend in with their environment when they are still and can easily look with leaves. Keep a sharp eye out!
Can you spot the butterfly on my daughter’s hat in this picture? Hint: I circled it in red. We were taking a break in the mountains last summer during a hike when this butterfly showed up and liked my daughter’s hat a lot. I told her to stay still and took several photographs of the butterfly while it was still on her hat. She loved seeing them later and kept asking questions about “her friend the butterfly” while it was on her head, which lasted about 10 minutes.
Butterflies are notoriously skittish and the best way to observe them, contrarily to natural children’s instincts, is not to chase them. Though there’s no way to tell where a butterfly will land, they will most likely land on a flower. Patience and luck get rewarded! If you can convince your kids to stay still around flowers (maybe sitting on the ground?), that may be their best shot at observing butterflies who will come to feed on the nectar of flowers. They usually feed during 30 seconds to a minute before flying away again.
Now it’s your turn.
Can you find butterflies with your kids on your next day out? If you can photograph them, use local butterfly resources to ID them. Butterflies are fascinating wildlife!