A Guide to Georgia Butterflies
Get to know those beautiful winged creatures you see every year.
One of the best things about Georgia's summer months are the beautiful butterflies that flit through our yards and neighborhoods. After all, who can resist smiling at the beauty of witnessing these winged creatures glide through the air?
In the metro area, butterflies are seen mostly from July through September. And getting them to stick around for a while during those months or even come back year after year isn't difficult when you add certain plants to your yard, says Henning Von Schmeling, butterfly expert at the Chattahoochee Nature Center.
Von Schmeling suggests planting nectar sources like Zinnias, sunflowers and coneflowers for adult butterflies.
"As adults most [butterflies] will feed on nectar from flowers even though there are some that will feed on rotting fruit and some even feed on feces," he said. "Most caterpillars of butterflies are plant eaters and are very selective about which plant they will eat. We have one butterfly here in Atlanta, the Harvester Butterfly, whose caterpillar is carnivorous and will only eat wooly aphids."
According to Von Schmeling, you should also invest in specific host plants for each species of butterfly you want to attract.
"For Black Swallowtails you must plant parsley, fennel and dill, for Monarchs you will need to plant any of the milkweeds like butterfly weed and swamp milkweed," he said. "If you have a place for the butterflies to lay eggs they will happily stay around and raise continuous generations in your back yard."
Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
This large butterfly is probably the most seen in Atlanta due to its large size and the bright yellow on the wings. They slowly glide through the air with and occasional wing beat to keep them afloat. They are easily observed on flowering plants drinking the nectar and their host plant is the Tulip Poplar tree. The females of this butterfly have more blue on the hind wing and have two distinct color variations, bright yellow and the dark form which is almost black.
Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenis)
This is a medium sized butterfly that flies all summer and nectars on many flowers. It's mostly black with yellow markings along the edges of the wing. Interestingly, more people can identify the caterpillar than the actual adult butterfly. The caterpillar can be found in your herb garden devouring your parsley and dill plants. If you want parsley and dill for home cooking you better grow more plants than you need and then you can share the extra leaves with the caterpillars of this pretty butterfly. Both of these host plants are not native and before we started planting these in gardens the butterfly would use any plants in the carrot family like Poison Hemlock.
Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae)
By late summer this is the most common butterfly you will see in Atlanta. They are bright yellow and strong fliers. This butterfly also migrates like the better known Monarch, but will overwinter in the coastal areas of the southern U.S. instead of Mexico. The host plants for this butterfly are plants in the Legume family like Cassia and Senna.
Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)
This is probably the best known butterfly in the U.S. Bright orange with black lines on the wings and a very slow wing beat makes it an easy one to identify. Most migrate to Mexico in winter, although some fly to South Florida. The Monarch returns in the spring to end up in the northern U.S. We only see this butterfly in the spring around March to April. And then again in the fall on their way to the wintering grounds. Host plants for this butterfly are any of the milkweeds.
Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)
This is a very common butterfly in the middle of the summer into fall. Easily recognized by the bright orange color, the elongated front wings and silver spots on the underside; this is a butterfly that every year re-populates the Atlanta area with overwintering adults from Florida and the Gulf Coast. The caterpillars feed on Passion Vine and are bright orange with black spines. This caterpillar can not hurt you with the spines, but if you are in doubt do not handle any caterpillars; some species can give you a serious rash when you touch the spines.
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)
This small colorful butterfly is one of the most widespread in the world. It's commonly found here in Atlanta in the summer months feeding on many of the flowers in the butterfly garden. They will lay their eggs on thistles and asters and sometimes, in outbreak years, could be considered a pest.
For more information on the butterfly and moth species common to Georgia, visit the New Georgia Encyclopedia.