Butterfly Feeders

The following article originally appeared in Butterfly Gardener, a NABA publication for members.
NABA member Joan Myrom has graciously allowed us to reprint it here.

Put a Butterfly Feeder in Your Future
By Joan Myrom.

Photos by Sam Jurkovic and Joan Myrom

This may be the year to finally set up that butterfly feeder that you’ve been thinking about.  If you do, you can expect to be rewarded with a season of interesting butterfly watching.  The butterflies that visit your feeder will typically stay awhile, and make frequent return visits.

Red Admiral at butterfly feeder
Red Admiral at butterfly feeder

Although not all butterfly species visit feeders, many do.  Your feeder will attract species that feed on food sources such as tree sap, dung, carrion, rotting matter, and of course overripe fruit—the primary “bait” you will place in your feeder.

Typically butterflies approaching a feeder make a number of false landings nearby before stopping to feed.  This gives you time to gather up your camera and/or close-focusing binoculars as the butterflies maneuver around the feeder to just the right feeding spots, walking or fluttering from one location to another.  Once they begin taking in nourishment, your winged guests may remain at the feeder for several minutes or more.

If possible, locate your feeder where you can view it from your windows or patio.  Select a location that is not easily accessible to ants and otherwise unwelcome critters.  Initially we selected locations with lots of sun, but our most successful feeders were hung from a tree, shaded most of the day.

In the past we have set up butterfly feeders in our upper Midwest yard but observed no butterflies visiting them.  We tried to follow brief butterfly feeder how-to instructions from several books.  Most resources suggested setting out a concoction made from different amounts of overripe bananas, watermelon, or other fruits; molasses, honey sugar water, or orange juice; and yeast and/or beer.  We tried many of these ingredients in feeders over several years; still no butterflies were attracted to our feeding stations.

Our challenge was to set up a successful feeder in our upper Midwest temperate climate.  Here, as in many other northern places, our environment is quite different

Eyed Brown at butterfly feeder
Eyed Brown at butterfly feeder

from that of butterfly houses, where tropical butterflies feast on honey-coated ripened fruit.  Determined to succeed, two years ago we fine-tuned our approach to butterfly feeding.  Instead of using bananas that had naturally spoiled in our kitchen, we followed the suggestion in How to Spot Butterflies by Patricia Taylor Sutton and Clay Sutton, and put a peeled banana in our freezer overnight.  When we took the banana from the freezer the next day, it had a gray, mealy consistency, but it worked in our feeder.

We constructed our feeder from a plastic one-inch plant coaster that we had used under a flowerpot.  We poured about two tablespoons of blackstrap molasses and about a three-quarter cup of stale beer over the fruit, instead of the honey and yeast we had previously used.  We replenished the bananas and molasses every week or so.  This may not be the answer to how to feed butterflies but it is one that has certainly worked for us.

We decided to hang our feeder in the birch tree in our back yard, using a plant hanger (also recommended by the Suttons).  We punched one hole on each of four locations on the sides of the plastic coaster for attaching the plant hanger.

Our feeder attracted a variety of butterflies all summer long.  A highlight was being

Viceroy at butterfly feeder
Viceroy at butterfly feeder

able to view more than one species or individual at the feeder at one time. An explosion of Red Admirals that summer was no doubt was a factor in our enjoyment.  It was thrilling to see butterflies buzzing the feeder from our house or spotting them while working in the garden.

We repeated our “victory” a second year and were quite enthused at the sight of butterflies hovering and landing at our feeder like birds landing at our bird feeders in the winter.  Next year we plan to use a heavier container for our feeder to provide greater stability in wind.

Our first successful feeder was hung outdoors in early July.  Now we set feeders out in May.  The day we set out the feeder, we immediately had butterfly visitors.

One of the photos we took near the feeder won a calendar photo contest and graced the month of July in 2008.  We look forward to watching butterflies stop at our feeders next year!


Addendum to Put a Butterfly Feeder in Your Future

We have received considerable interest and positive feedback about our butterfly feeder article that appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of Butterfly Gardener. In response to the enthusiasm, we are adding a few footnotes to the article about maintenance of the feeder–and a caution.

White Admiral at butterfly feeder
White Admiral at butterfly feeder

Feeder Maintenance

1. Rain can fill your feeder with water. After a rain, drain the water and, if needed, replenish the bananas and molasses. Butterflies don’t mind if some water is left in the feeder.
2. Wind may blow your feeder from the tree. To avoid this, take your feeder down when a storm is expected. If the feeder is blown down, simply put it back up and refill as needed. One of our feeders was blown down in a storm and broken. We simply replace the coaster.
3. Do not feel that you need to leave your feeder up throughout the season as you might a bird feeder. We use the feeder for a month or so each year, during the height of our butterfly season. Sometimes we put it for a few weeks in late spring and early fall.

A Caution

We recommended the use stale beer in your feeder. Although it is generally accepted that stale beer be used in a butterfly feeder, some concern about this practice has been expressed. We are not aware of research regarding the impact of stale beer on particular species. We are aware that the alcohol in the beer evaporates over time and that flat beer is preferable. We recommend that you use stale beer sparingly or not at all if you are concerned. If we have no beer on hand, we use yeast

Happy Butterflying, Joan Myrom & Sam Jurkovic