Garden Variety: Butterflies and moths add grace and color near season’s end
By August in Kansas, gardens are a little less enchanting than they were in the spring for many gardeners. Plants show the stress of summer’s heat, the war on weeds seems never-ending, and leaves are blemished from insect feeding and leaf-spot diseases. Late summer flowers are in full bloom though, and with them come a variety of butterflies and moths that are reminders of the life these plants sustain.
Watching butterflies is like stopping to smell the flowers. They are graceful as they move from bloom to bloom or pause to spread their wings and warm their bodies in the sun. They spend their short lifetime (generally measured in weeks) feeding on nectar from their favorite flowers and laying eggs to sustain their species. They also pollinate flowers as they feed.
Some butterfly species have bright colors and markings that give predators the idea that they taste bad or help them blend in with the bright flowers and plants upon which they feed. Other species are plainly colored to blend easily with their surroundings.
The best places to watch butterflies are meadows with a wide variety of wildflowers or public butterfly gardens where plants were chosen to support various native butterfly species. Most botanic gardens include butterfly gardens in their displays. Butterfly gardens are sometimes also referred to as monarch waystations as they provide food and habitat for migrating monarch butterflies.
Identification of butterflies can be difficult beyond the common and easily recognizable species. They are also very closely related to moths, and there are about 750 species of butterflies and about 12,000 species of moths in the U.S. To separate butterflies and moths, most experts recommend looking at the antennae. Butterfly antennae are usually shaped like a club and moth antennae are usually feathery. There are exceptions to this rule and others though, and there are large, beautiful moths that are just as enjoyable to view as butterflies.
If identification of a butterfly or moth is desired, try taking a picture of the wings and comparing it to pictures in a guide or online. Be sure to look for region-specific information. The Friends of the Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita produces a great reference called A Pocket Guide to Common Kansas Butterflies, which can be purchased there or ordered for $3 each.
In the Lawrence area, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department maintains a monarch waystation at the Rotary Arboretum, 5100 W. 27th St. Douglas County Master Gardeners maintain monarch waystations on KU’s West campus at 2021 Constant Ave; at the Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds, 2110 Harper St; at Tom Swan Park in downtown Baldwin City; and Ninth and Main in downtown Eudora.
In addition to providing a space to view butterflies in action, these gardens offer ideas about design and plant selection for gardeners who wish to add butterfly habitat to their own gardens.
Hiking trails, state parks and other public lands are also good places to look for butterflies.
— Jennifer Smith works in regulatory horticulture and has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.