What Do Butterflies Eat?

If you’re trying to attract more butterflies to your yard you’ll know that offering food is always a great way to do this. But what do butterflies eat?

Adult butterflies mainly eat flower nectar. They can also find sources of nectar from vegetables, herbs, and fruit blossoms. Butterflies may also get energy from eating fruit juice, sugar water, tree sap, fungi, and organic matter from animals. Male butterflies need a source of salt and minerals and will get this from drinking muddy water.

That gives you a basic idea of the variety of food that butterflies will eat. But it may have left you with a few more questions?

I know you’re wondering what I mean by organic matter, right?

Well, this guide will take you through all you need to know about the butterflies’ diet. Plus we’ll delve into a few questions you may have about butterfly eating habits.

What Do Butterflies Eat?

Most butterflies are herbivores and get their main source of energy from nectar. However, they do get energy and other nutrients from a variety of food sources.

Let’s look at each food source from butterflies.

1. Nectar

Nectar is the main food source for all butterfly species. Sugars in nectar give the butterflies enough energy to move around and mate and lay eggs.

Butterflies will be attracted to nectar-producing plants. The benefit to plants is that the butterfly will help to pollinate these plants as they move around.

Surprisingly nectar is produced by a variety of plants. This is where Butterflies can search for a good nectar source.

Flower Nectar

Flower nectar I the most obvious choice and where you’ll have seen most butterflies.

Flowers can purposely make themselves attractive to butterflies. They do this using their shape, size, scent, and colorings.

Butterflies are programmed to know that a big, bright, sweet-smelling flower will have a good source of nectar inside.

Butterflies have a preference for composite flowers. These are the flowers that are shaped with a large flat middle and petals fanning out. Some common composite flowers are daisies, sunflowers, Black-eyed Susan, and dahlias.

Also, butterflies have a host plant that they use to lay their eggs on. These plants are a rich food source for newly hatched larvae. An example of a host plant is milkweed for monarchs. Without these host plants, butterflies cannot complete their life cycle.

Vegetable Nectar

Vegetable plants also do their best to attract butterflies. They do this with nectar-producing blossoms on their plants. The butterflies will then feed on the nectar and help with the cross-pollination of vegetables.

Common Vegetable that have butterfly-friendly blossoms are:

  • Zucchini
  • Squash
  • Pumpkins
  • Radishes
  • Cabbage
  • Artichoke
  • Asparagus

Herb Nectar

Like vegetables, you’ll find a whole variety of herb plants that have nectar-producing flowers. These flowers are often the perfect shape for butterflies to land on a feed.

Herbs can attract two of the most popular butterflies: the swallowtail and the monarch.

Popular herbs that butterflies like to feed on are:

  • Fennel
  • Dill
  • Parsley
  • Oregano
  • Chives

2. Sugar Water

Butterflies can also eat a homemade butterfly nectar solution, made from sugar and water.

This is a great way to attract butterflies to your yard if you don’t have nectar-producing flowers.

You can try making your own sugar water with our very own Birds and Wild Butterfly nectar recipe.

It’s a very simple sugar and water mix, with a little touch of salt, which is essential for male butterflies.

It’s best to follow the instruction from our recipe. that way you won’t cause any harm to the butterflies visiting your yard.

The ideal butterfly nectar ratio is ten parts water to one part sugar. This makes it the perfect sugar content for butterflies to enjoy.

If you want a more convenient way to make up butterfly nectar you can buy butterfly nectar powder (like this brand) and make it up as you need it.

The best way to offer sugar water for butterflies is on a butterfly feeder. You can make your own or buy one ready-made (This is our favorite).

Although sugar water is a great way to attract butterflies, be mindful it may attract other sugar-loving insects to your yard.

3. Fruit

Butterflies love to eat fruit. There are two ways that butterflies enjoy eating fruit.

Fruit Nectar

Flower trees and plants produce nectar-filled blossoms that butterflies like to feed on. You may not notice butterflies visiting fruit blossoms as much as other flowers. But that’s because fruit blossoms are only around for a really short period in springtime, and some butterflies may be hibernating.

Some fruit blossoms that butterflies are attracted to are:

  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Peaches
  • Plum
  • Figs
  • Cherry
  • Oranges

Fruit Juice

Butterflies love to eat fruit. They don’t have the mouthparts to chew the fruit flesh. So instead they drink the juices from the fruit.

Fruit juice is very similar to nectar for butterflies. It’s sugary to provide energy and high in water to hydrate them.

Butterflies like sweet, watery fruits such as:

  • Strawberries
  • Watermelon
  • Grapefruit
  • Melon
  • Oranges

Although because all fruit contains sugars, they will enjoy other harder fruits including:

  • Plums
  • Banana
  • Apple
  • Pears
  • Mangoes

With these fruits, it’s best to let them become overripe. This helps to soften the fruit and give it a pulp-like texture that is easier for the butterflies to eat.

Fruit can be placed directly onto a butterfly feeder in your yard. The sweet smells will help to attract the butterflies, and they’ll stop and enjoy the fruit juices.

There is the option to offer store-bought fruit juice to butterflies. They will drink this. However, I would recommend only offer fresh-squeezed juices. That’s because store-bought juice is often made with additives and preservatives. Both of these can be harmful to butterflies’ health.

4. Mud

Have to ever seen a few butterflies gathering around muddy puddles after a rainstorm?

Then you’ll have seen them doing a behavior called ‘mud puddling’.

Butterflies like to drink from muddy puddles as it’s an excellent source of essential nutrients. Mud is mostly made up of salts, protein, nitrogen, and amino acids that keep butterflies healthy.

Both male and female butterflies will be seen puddling. Although male butterflies need to do this to restore nutrients last in the mating process.

The more mud the male butterflies have access to the more successful they will be at reproducing and keeping the species alive.

5. Tree Sap

Not all butterflies will rely on nectar as a food source. Some species such as the huckleberry butterfly prefer to eat tree sap.

Tree sap is high in sugar which gives the butterflies energy. Tree sap also contains other nutrients such as nitrogen, salt, mineral, and amino acids.

So you may be wondering why butterflies don’t prefer tree sap over nectar.

The problem is that butterflies can access the tree sap themselves. They need to rely on other insects, animals, or birds to break through the tree bark first.

You’ll find that once an area of a tree has been exposed, you can see large groups of butterflies feeding at once.

Common sap filled trees that attract butterflies are:

  • Oak
  • Maple
  • Ash
  • Walnut
  • Willow
  • Elm

6. Leaves

Adult butterflies cannot eat leaves. That’s because they don’t have mouth parts that allow them to chew.

Although caterpillars (baby butterflies) do have the ability to eat leaves. In fact, leaf vegetation makes up most of a caterpillar’s diet.

That’s because caterpillars have mouth parts that allow them to bite and chew plants. Only when the caterpillars change into butterflies do they form a proboscis mouth that only allows them to drink liquids.

If you see a butterfly on a leaf it’s likely drinking any available fluid, resting, or laying eggs.

7. Insects

Most butterflies don’t eat other insects. Again that’s because they don’t have the mouth part to eat solid types of food.

There is one expect to this: the harvester butterfly. This is the only carnivorous butterfly in the USA.

The harvester butterfly is known to feed mainly on woolly aphids.

They specifically target aphids as they produce a sugary secretion known as honeydew.

Both adult and caterpillar harvesters will feast on aphids.

They are able to do this because they have a very short proboscis which they use to drain the honeydew from the aphids.

Harvester butterflies are quite rare to see. They are mostly found in woodland and swamp areas in northern and southern USA.

8. Fungi

Butterflies like to feed on fungi sources such as mushrooms and lichen.

Fungi is a great source of minerals and salts that butterflies need to keep healthy.

Although most fungi-eating butterflies live in hot climates such as the tropics of South America. There are some US-based butterflies that like to eat fungi.

Gossamer-winged Butterflies are well known to eat fungi. These are the butterfly species with bright blue butterfly wings.

Researchers think butterflies may use fungi as steroids or antibiotics to keep healthy and fend off disease. {Source)

9. Pollen

Most butterflies do not purposely eat pollen. They may consume pollen as they feed on sticky plant nectar. Those accidental bits of pollen can be a small source of protein for the butterflies.

The zebra longwing butterfly is an unusual species that are known to eat pollen as a part of their diet. They’re able to break down the pollen using special saliva.

The reason zebra longwings eat pollen is that it allows them to create a chemical in their body that releases cyanide when eaten by a predator.

It’s a really cool defense mechanism as Zebra longtails group together at night. If a predator eats one zebra longtail they will likely die before they eat the rest of them.

10. Organic matter

At the very start of this guide, I discussed that butterflies like to eat organic matter. That is pretty much a polite way of saying that butterflies like to eat quite a lot of gross things.

Some butterfly species will eat:

  • Blood
  • Flesh
  • Poop
  • Tears
  • Sweat
  • Urine

Whilst all these things seem gross for humans, they are really beneficial for butterflies.

It’s part of the same ‘puddling behavior you see with the mud puddles. All these organic materials are crammed full of energy and nutrients that butterflies need to survive.

You’ll notice that a lot of them are salty liquids. That means they provide butterflies with that rich sodium and ammonium source they need. Some brush-footed butterflies are well known for eating rotten meat and animal dung. Thankfully this doesn’t apply to the much loved painted lady or monarchs.

Rotten flesh starts to break down to an alcohol source which butterflies can use for energy.

ButterflyHost PlantNectarTree SapFruitFungiOrganic Matter
MonarchMilkweeds   ✓  
Black SwallowtailCarrots, Parsley, Dill, Fennel   
Painted Ladythistle, mallows, hollyhock,   
Blue MorphoVarious flowers
Red AdmiralNettles 
American CopperSorrel and Docks   
Eastern Tiger SwallowtailTulip tree, wild cherry, magnolia✓                       
Mourning CloakWillow, elm, hackberry, cottonwood, poplar  
ViceroyWillows, poplar  
Common Buckeyesnapdragon, gerardia, false foxglove   
Question MarkHops, Elm, Hackberry, Nettle 

How do butterflies eat?

Adult butterflies eat using a long, straw-like, mouthpiece known as a proboscis.

These mouth parts are soft and delicate and can only break through very soft surfaces. This allows them to extract sugary and salty liquids from flowers, fruit, and open liquid sources such as puddles.

Butterflies can’t use these mouthpieces to chew any type of solid material. That means that a butterfly’s diet is made up only of liquids.

These liquids are usually full of sugar for energy and nutrients such as salts or amino acids to help keep the butterflies healthy.

When a butterfly isn’t eating the proboscis curls up.

The only time butterflies are able to eat solid food parts is when they are caterpillars. Their mouth is able to bite and chew plant parts.

What do butterflies eat in winter?

Butterflies can go up to 5 months without eating anything. This helps them to survive for a few months over winter when food is scarce.

Most butterflies hibernate in winter in a state known as diapause. This helps them to survive the harsh weather and low food source.

They are able to do this by overfeeding in autumn and storing the food as fat to maintain energy as they hibernate.

Some butterfly species may migrate during winter to a warmer climate with a remaining nectar source.

What do butterflies drink?

Butterflies drink water for hydration. They will get their main source of hydration from the liquids in their food sources.

In the summer butterflies will seek out extra water sources to keep themselves cool. This is when you often see the puddling behaviors, particularly after rainstorms.

You don’t need to offer butterflies any plain water to keep them hydrated. Having plants, fruit, or sugar water available is all the hydration they need.

Final thoughts

You’ll see that butterflies are mainly nectar eaters. That means the best way to attract them to your yard is by offering lots of nectar-producing flowers. The next best offering is homemade butterfly nectar or fruit pieces at a butterfly feeder.

Butterflies are sure to come to your yard for something to eat if you have any type of host plant nearby. Offering an area that forms muddy puddles after watering the yard or rainstorm is a sure-fire way to help the butterflies in your area thrive.

There are so many butterflies with a huge variety in their diet. Including some questionable things, they like to eat. You’ll be sure to have something in your yard that they like to eat.

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