Bursts of color and beauty, butterflies are a delight to behold. And as they play a crucial role in a healthy planet, it's important that our children get to know them.
Follow our tips below to unleash your child’s inner lepidopterist (person who studies butterflies) and soon enough they will be identifying Long-tailed Blues, Red Lacewings and Orange Sulphurs (of course depending on where you live in the world!).
Start early in the day as sightings tail off in the late afternoon.
Learn your local species ahead of time. Use websites, books or even matching games to help kids learn their local butterflies. A fun idea is to help kids create flashcards they can color. It also helps to get to know the plants on which the caterpillars and adults of each butterfly feed. Some species tend to stay close to their larval food plants as adults.
Take a look at these helpful resources of the most popular butterfly species in the US, Europe and Australia:
Watch the temps. Most butterflies need a body temperature of about 80 degrees Fahrenheit to fly, but it doesn’t need to be nearly that warm outside. Butterflies use solar energy to pump up their body temperature by as much as 20 degrees above the air temperature. So when outdoor temperatures consistently start reaching 60 degrees F or so, butterflies will begin flying. Besides temp, look out for wind conditions. Most butterflies fly only on calm days when they don’t have to fight the wind.
Pick your site. Butterflies live in a broad range of habitats including forests, heathlands, bogs, swamps, even salt marshes—anywhere, in fact, where their caterpillar food plants and sources of nectars for adults are found. They especially tend to hang around flowery places with long grass. And most will seek warm, sheltered, south-facing spots.
Come prepared. Don’t forget your binoculars for a closer view of these beauties. Bring a field guide or use a smartphone app to help you identify the butterflies you see.
Stay quiet. This is a great time for children to practice their fox walk, moving slowly and silently through the habitat. Butterflies have excellent vision so it is especially important to be quiet to reduce the chance of frightening off a butterfly.
Use your field guide or smartphone field ID apps like Seek from iNaturalist to ID what you see!
Make it official. Consider taking part in an official butterfly count to help conservation groups learn more about the local butterfly population. The North American Butterfly Association runs a Butterfly Count Program in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Counts are open to public participation and new participants are encouraged. Depending on the count, one or more count parties will survey sites within the 15-mile diameter count circle on a given day. The compiler will let you know when and where to meet. There is a $3.00 fee to participate in a count. Learn more!
Build your own garden paradise. Want to have the best seat to the local butterfly activity? Enrich your outdoor space by making it a paradise for butterflies. By planting native species that butterflies adore, you will increase your chances of sighting butterflies. But most importantly, you are helping butterflies thrive!
When deciding on which species to plant, prioritize keystone like oak, willow, cottonwood, blueberry bushes, birch, hickory. These species are key to the survival of hundreds of species. You can search the NWF’s plant finder database to find species that are best for butterflies, moths and wildlife. Aim to provide flowers through the butterfly season as spring flowers are vital for butterflies coming out of hibernation and autumn flowers help butterflies build up their reserves for winter. If you can, always plant the same types of plants together in blocks for optimal butterfly activity.
Remember that butterflies like warmth so choose sunny, sheltered spots when planting nectar plants. And never use insecticides and pesticides or peat compost (peat bogs are home to many animals and plants, including the Large Heath butterfly, which is declining across Europe). Don’t mow wildflowers as these are key nectar sources for early butterflies. And leave the leaf litter! Overwintering butterflies need leaf litter for shelter and protection.
Above all, enjoy the beautiful butterflies and, with luck, you'll spot even more next season!