American lady butterfly on New England Aster

The garden of sunshine and moonlight, a paradise for moths and butterflies

American lady butterfly on New England Aster

Making your garden pollinator-friendly is an act of habitat building, putting the pieces in place to provide food and shelter for these tiny winged creatures.

Pollinators have preferences for plants, just like we do. Each type of pollinator not only likes a different type of plant, but has evolved to fit the size, shape, and bloom period of that plant. Moths and butterflies are no exception, and gardening for them creates a habitat that supports pollinators that fly in the day and in the moonlight. 

red admiral butterfly on yellow coneflower

The Butterfly and Moth Buffet

Which flowers should we plant when we are trying to attract butterflies and moths? Lepidoptera (the term used for both butterflies and moths) aren’t able to work around complex flowers as bees are. They instead need a landing pad, like the open round flower of a New England Aster, or the compound flower of a Milkweed. Moths and butterflies also benefit from vertical structure in a garden. These structures act as windbreaks, creating microhabitats that protect these pollinators while they feed. Some moths have a long proboscis, which allows them to hover while they drink. They enjoy the bell-shaped flowers of Columbine and even Yucca. For butterflies sunlight is important, allowing them to bask and warm their bodies. Many moths are day flying as well, but some fly at night, navigating by moonlight to heavily scented flowers. 

Making it a True Bed and Breakfast

When we plant a garden for butterflies and moths, we have to ensure that nectar plants and host plants are present. Unlike bees that provision nests with pollen, butterflies and moths do not make nests. They instead lay their eggs on various host plants. The caterpillars eat the leaves of their host plants, mature, form a chrysalis, and pupate into an adult. For some species that are well known, like the Monarch butterfly, the host plant is also their food plant. Others, like Swallowtail butterflies, will feed off of a variety of nectar plants, laying their eggs on many woody species like ashes, willows, poplars, and cherries.

How do moths and butterflies pollinate? 

Unlike bees, butterflies and moths are unintentional pollinators. Butterflies and moths do not actively seek out pollen, and do not have any specialized physical features designed for pollination. However, they are still able to perform a very important role in the pollination of wildflowers. While feeding on nectar, pollen sticks to the legs, proboscis, and bodies of butterflies and moths which then gets transferred from flower to flower, aiding in the pollination process. Although butterflies and moths are not as efficient as bees at pollination, the sheer number of flowers they can visit and their ability to travel greater distances than bees fills in some of the gaps in pollination that bees cannot address. Butterflies are diurnal (day-flying) and attracted to feeding on brightly-colored flowers with large heads which act as landing pads for them. Butterflies are highly attracted to colour and scent, and as a trend, butterfly flowers are smaller yet clustered, copious nectar producers, and conspicuously coloured. Although some moths take flight during the day, by and large moths are nocturnal pollinators, attracted to those flowers that open at dusk or at night. Flowers pollinated by moths are typically fragrant and lighter in colour. These characteristics allow these flowers to attract moths under the cover of darkness, as the lighter-coloured flowers are better at reflecting moonlight.  

Even though some moth species aren’t pollinators, planting native host trees in your green spaces not only supports tons of captivating moth and insect species, but also supports local biodiversity as a whole. By planting trees that support a variety of different insects, including moths, you are also supporting animals that rely on those insects and moths for food, such as birds during the day and bats at night. A majority of terrestrial birds feed their young with caterpillars that feed on tree foliage, with most of these caterpillars being moth larvae. Moths are often underappreciated in comparison to other insects, but they are fun to observe because of their amazing diversity, many species are important pollinators of native plants, and they are a crucial food source that other animals depend on for survival.

swallowtail butterfly on wild radish

A unique lepidoptera and host-plant relationship.

The Yucca moth, found in Alberta, is the only pollinator of a long-lived grassland perennial called soapweed – the two are in an obligate mutualistic relationship – the plant needs the moth, and the moth needs the plant. The same is true for the False-foxglove Sun Moth – which hosts its larvae on Yellow False Foxglove and Fern-leaved Foxglove; species that exist in oak savannah and meadow habitats, that largely don’t exist in Ontario now. Butterfly species like the Karner blue have an obligate mutualistic relationship with wild lupine, and the butterfly has declined throughout much of its range due to the decrease in lupine patches and connectivity. Another species, the Virginia White is a specialist on broad-leaved toothwart, an herbaceous plant of established forest understories. As old forest habitat declines across North America, so do the chances of this butterfly’s survival. 


Celebrating the wings of life: The 2022 Wings of Life Pollinator Poster features butterflies and moths and the essential role they play in pollination, culture, and ecosystem services throughout North America. Butterflies and moths are found in almost every terrestrial ecosystem from deserts to tropical rainforests, and thousands of flowering plants have evolved to rely specifically on their pollination services. The plants highlighted in this work of art are ideal choices for your garden, supporting unique butterflies and moths.

Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) – Sunflowers are part of the Asteraceae family, though they used to be categorized under Compositae because they are actually a composite of multiple flowers. Sunflowers flower between July and October and their multiple floret structures attract many pollinators. They provide nectar for the Aphrodite Fritillary Butterfly.

Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) – Supports the Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly by providing nectar.

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) – produces flowers that are close to the ground, open, and short-tubed perfect for butterflies such as the Eastern tailed blue butterfly.

New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) – produces clumps of red and purple flowers that provide nectar for eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies.

Bee Balm (Monarda spp.) – a perennial with fragrant red, pink, purple, or white flowers that provide nectar for the Karner blue butterfly.

hummingbird clearwing moth on beebalm

Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) – supports monarch caterpillars which eat milkweed leaves and adult butterflies which drink nectar produced by the flowers.

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) – produces clusters of pink flowers that provide nectar for viceroy butterflies.

monarch butterfly on milkweed

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) – a native coneflower that is very attractive to swallowtails such as the zebra swallowtail butterfly.

Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii) – has large white trumpet-shaped flowers and supports the Carolina sphinx moth.

Blazing Star (Liatris spp.)  – a native perennial that produces tall spikes of bottlebrush flowers and supports the hummingbird clearwing moth.

Moonflower (Calonyction aculeatum) – a perennial vine that gets its name from its nocturnal blooms and provides nectar for the pink-spotted hawkmoth.

Evening Primrose (Oenothera spp.) – the Primrose moth caterpillar feeds on the seedpod of evening primrose and the adult primrose moth nectars on its flowers, providing benefits to both the plant and moth species.

Dogfennel (Eupatorium capillifolium) – contains defensive compounds (pyrrolizidine alkaloids). During courtship, the male scarlet-bodied wasp moth transfers these compounds to the female, which protects them from predators like the golden orb-web spider.

crescent butterfly

For more information on the plants, pollinators, and this year’s featured poster artist, visit the Pollinator Partnership website at https://www.pollinator.org/poster-2022.

Register your pollinator garden as a Bee-Friendly Garden. Whether planted for bees, hummingbirds, butterflies, or moths, your pollinator garden helps support pollinators and the ecosystem services they provide. Visit www.polliantorpartnership.ca to learn more.

Vicki Wojcik is the Director of Pollinator Partnership Canada and has worked to support pollinator habitat for bees, butterflies, and all the other pollinators for over a decade. 

Anthony Colangelo is the Communications and Engagement Manager at Pollinator Partnership Canada. He is always finding new ways to share conservation and gardening tips that support pollinators. 

Vicki Wojcik and Anthony Colangelo
Vicki Wojcik and Anthony Colangelo

Vicki Wojcik is the Director of Pollinator Partnership Canada and has worked to support pollinator habitat for bees, butterflies, and all the other pollinators for over a decade.

Anthony Colangelo is the Communications and Engagement Manager at Pollinator Partnership Canada. He is always finding new ways to share conservation and gardening tips that support pollinators.

Visit https://pollinatorpartnership.ca/ to learn more.

Posted on Thursday, July 7th, 2022
Filed under Environment | Nature
Tagged:
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