Nature Coast Butterfly Season is Back
Butterfly season is upon us! I absolutely love September’s fluttering wings, with pairs of dancing Lepidoptera all around. Butterflies are very common on Florida’s Nature Coast, with nearly 200 species living in or traveling through the Sunshine State.
In fact, we have our own subspecies of the famed Monarch butterfly right here in Florida – and Dade City is having its first Monarch Butterfly Festival October 12 in the Hibiscus Park downtown.
According to University of Florida’s IFAS, over 180 verified butterfly species are in the Sunshine State, representing some 170 native or newly established species and 17 tropical vagrants.
Within that mix, around 40 are considered either unique to the state or occur mostly within its boundaries. This diverse butterfly fauna is the highest of any state east of the Mississippi River and helps make Florida a premier location for butterfly gardeners. [i]
Worry about the Declining Monarch Butterfly Population
There is some real concern in the Eco world that Monarch butterflies are significantly declining. Here is an article by Halle Marchese and Natalie van Hoose that summarized a 37-year study of the Monarch in Florida, showing its population is down about 80% since 2005!
The study suggests that the loss of Florida’s milkweed plants, a significant food and breeding plant for the Monarch, has severely affected both caterpillar and butterfly populations.
Butterfly Gardens on Florida’s Nature Coast
Because of our diverse flora, the Nature Coast is a wonderful place to experience butterflies. In fact, there is a wonderful butterfly garden at the Nature Coast Botanical Gardens, 1489 Parker Avenue in Spring Hill. Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, 4150 S. Suncoast Boulevard in Homosassa also has a nice butterfly garden area as part of the park. Please add any other public butterfly gardens in the Nature Coast that you know of to the comments section of this article.
The Value of Butterflies
Butterflies are important to our ecosystems, as valuable pollinators for our plants, including agricultural crops. They come in a huge variety of sizes, shapes and colors, and are attracted to various flowers and flowering plants that often fit the butterfly’s size.
Butterflies are important fodder for birds, bats, lizards, spiders and other creatures in the food chain.
These colorful, winged marvels consume weedy plants and are good indicators of a healthy ecosystem.
Some butterflies such as the Monarch and Pipevine Swallowtail eat poisonous plants as caterpillars and are actually poisonous as adult butterflies. Birds learn not to eat them! Other tasty butterflies (called “mimics”) come to resemble them and thus are overlooked by hungry predators.
And they add immeasurable beauty to our environment, which is great for our mental and spiritual health. Butterflies have inspired poets, painters and photographers for many, many years.
Ode to a Butterfly
by Sheri Walters
Butterfly, oh butterfly, why do you hide in the shadows?
Spread wide your wings, let your heart sing
And come dance with me in the meadow
Butterfly, oh butterfly, why do you fear?
You’ll never stray, I’ll lead the way
Just follow the path, I’ll be near
Butterfly, oh butterfly, have you no hope?
Drink of the sun, our life’s just begun
Thro time’s hills and valleys we’ll lope
Butterfly, oh butterfly, dare you to dream?
On our hearts we depend, shall we follow the wind
And consign to the fates grander scheme?
Official State Butterfly of Florida
The zebra longwing butterfly is found throughout Florida in hardwood hammocks, thickets, gardens, and particularly in the Everglades National Park. The zebra longwing butterfly is characterized by long black wings with distinctive thin stripes and a slow, graceful flight. Some have white stripes and some have yellowish stripes.
The adults are unusual among butterflies in that they eat pollen as well as sip nectar. This ability contributes to their longevity—they can live up to 3 months as adults in the wild.
Attracting Butterflies with a Butterfly Garden
If you aren’t seeing many butterflies around your area, you can do something about it – plant a butterfly garden! It’s really pretty easy. Just add the plants that attract the butterflies you want to commune with.
Components of a successful butterfly garden include adult nectar sources to attract and nourish adult butterflies and larval host plants to attract female butterflies laying eggs as well as serve as a food source for the developing larvae. You will want to add some shelter for your plants to provide protection from temperature extremes, storms, and predators, some locations for your butterflies to rest, and a water source, such as a fountain to provide easy, consistent access to water for drinking and regulating their body temperatures.
If this seems overwhelming to you, contact your local Master Gardener organization.
Meanwhile, this helpful table by Marguerite Klem gives Nature Coast readers a variety of butterfly species and the plants they prefer.
For gardeners thinking of adding butterfly plants to their landscapes, it’s important to note that both caterpillar host plants and nectar plants for adults should be planted to maximize butterfly populations.
Some good plants for hosting butterflies on Florida’s Nature Coast include Black-Eyed Susan, Bottlebrush, Butterfly Bush, Calico Flower, Cassia, Coral Bean, Coral Honeysuckle, Dill, Fennel, Firebush, Firecracker Plant, Firespike, Gumbo-Limbo Tree, Jatropha, Lantana, Lion’s Ear, Milkweed, Parsley, Passion Flower, Pawpaw, Purple Coneflower, and Saltbush.
Viewing Butterflies without a Garden
The different species of Lepidoptera enjoy different ecosystems, so if you go for a walk in the woods, you will see different butterflies than if you view them in a field or on the beach. It can be fun to try and identify which butterflies you see in which environment. Tom Murray took the time to photograph and make a web page of Florida Butterflies. You can find it here.
They are not all there, but there are many. Also there is a book by University of Florida IFAS, Florida Butterfly Encounters that may be helpful. It can be found here.
While it is still hot outside this time of year, getting out early and enjoying a quick walk or a quiet time sipping your favorite beverage in the shade offers the opportunity to see some of Florida’s finest butterflies – and help your spirit soar and dance with their colorful, winged whimsy.
[i] Butterfly Gardening in Florida by Jaret C. Daniels, Joe Schaefer, Craig N. Huegel, and Frank J. Mazzotti[i]