Butterflies and moths (Lepidopterans) are important pollinators of flowering plants in both wild and managed ecosystems, and our own backyard gardens. Distinctive characteristics: butterflies (and moths) are the only group of insects that have two pairs of scale covered wings, and some butterflies have reduced scales, which are often brightly coloured, particularly in many butterflies.
Lepidopterans undergo a complete metamorphosis: eggs are laid, larvae hatch, pupal stage follows during which the final adult form takes shape. Butterflies are slender-bodied (mostly) diurnal (active during the day) insects.
There are an estimated 17,500 species of butterflies in the world. Within Canada, 302 butterfly species are described from coast to coast to coast, with the highest number of species found in the provinces from British Columbia through to Quebec. The Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is one of the best-known species of butterfly in the world; it has bright orange wings that span upwards of 93 to 105 mm and have a thick black border with two rows of white spots. Additional markings include two highly visible black patches on the hind wings which are found only on the males.
In Canada, the monarch is recorded in all ten provinces and in the Northwest Territories. In general, two breeding populations of the Monarch are recognized: Western and Eastern with the Rocky Mountains being the dividing point. Each of these two monarch populations has a distinct migratory pattern. Those easts of the Rockies over winter in Central Mexico, while those west of the Rockies overwinter in California.
Monarchs are wide-ranging and powerful fliers. In the fall, they migrate thousands of kilometres, travelling from Canada to Mexico and California. Monarchs conserve energy during migration by riding currents of rising warm air and will reach altitudes of over one kilometre in order to take advantage of the prevailing winds.
Did you know that Monarch Butterfly populations were down 50% between the winters of 2019 and 2020?
Monarch butterfly numbers across North America have been slowly declining for 15 years and the reason is due to a general loss of habitat mainly caused by farming and urban development. Another factor - the loss of overwintering habitats in Mexico and California. Climate change is also responsible for the dwindling population. Other threats include violent storms, and contaminants such as herbicides (which kills both the milkweed needed by the caterpillars and the nectar producing wildflowers needed by the adults).
Did you know Monarchs thrive wherever milkweeds grow, as the larvae (caterpillars) feed exclusively on milkweed leaves?
As long as there are healthy milkweed plants, Monarchs will put up with human interference and have been known to even breed along highways and in city gardens. A Monarch butterfly typically lives from 2 to 6 weeks except for the last generation of the year, which can live up to 8 to 9 months.
- Butterflies represent one small branch of the lepidopterans - about 10% of known species (the others are moth species).
- All butterflies begin life in as a tiny egg
- By undergoing a total metamorphosis, butterfly larvae and adults are able to live radically different lifestyles in completely different environments - the former as a slow crawling youngster whose insatiable appetite for vegetation keeps it closer to home, in contrast to the latter – a wide ranged flyer with several hectares to several hundred square kilometres of territory, and a sipper of nectar.
- One butterfly species, the Frosted Elfin (Callophrys irus), is extirpated (wiped out) from Canada.
- Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) migrate thousands of kilometres to avoid the Canadian winter.
- The Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) and European Skipper (Thymelicus lineola) are the two exotic butterflies in Canada.
- Butterflies need a source of water; ponds, fountains, misters and bird baths are vital for adding additional water to compliment rain and dew from morning grass; add some rocks on one side for a beach entry or place some branches from edge to edge.
Butterflies are a flagship species and every one of them plays an important role in our ecosystems. Planting flowering plants and shrubs will attract more butterflies. Flower nectar is the food for adult butterflies; flying from flower to flower sipping nectar, causes pollination to occur. Be sure to check out which butterflies are native to your area and plant native species to attract them; mix in other beneficial plants with pretty flowers for added personal benefit.
Butterflies have long been given the bulk of credit as pollinators, however moths do their share of carting pollen between flowers, too…especially at night! There are approximately 5000 moth species known from Canada and more estimated to be discovered; the actual number is thought to be closer to 7000. Moths represent about 90% the lepidopterans (others are butterfly species). Moths are then much more diverse, but are less well known pollinator species. Most moths are nocturnal; night-flying pollinators tend to visit white, fragrant flowers, such as jasmine.
Hawk moths are perhaps the most visible moth pollinators. Many gardeners are familiar with the sight of a hummingbird moth hovering and darting from flower to flower. Other moth pollinators include owlet moths, underwing moths, and geometer moths.
Check out this link for an excellent reference to identify butterflies and moths in Canada
Check out our Beneficial Butterfly Collection