So you want a backyard butterfly exhibit? What a wonderful way to protect and share butterflies with friends and neighbors!
First, decisions need to be made. 1) Is the exhibit temporary, for a short time, or is it to last for years? 2) Do you live in a high-wind area? 3) Will you be raising caterpillars in your exhibit or is it just for adult butterflies? 4) Are you planting in the ground or will you grow all the plants in pots?
Consider where the sun is located. If an exhibit is too shady, butterflies will simply sit and not fly or eat. Avoid shady areas. The door should face north, if possible. If the door is on the bright side of the exhibit, butterflies will land on it and the wall where it is located. When the door is opened, butterflies may easily escape.
If the exhibit is temporary, an inexpensive screened tent will work if it is reinforced. Non-reinforced tents soon blow over or the supports will break. Attach it securely to the ground. You can buy ground staples to attach it. Some people fill old green pillowcases with sand and place them inside the tent, around the edges, and especially in the corners. It doesn’t take much wind to damage inexpensive tents. The supports are flimsy. You can build outside supports to hold the exhibit upright. The opening should have a zipper closure, not magnetic closures. We recommend one with a built-in floor.
If the exhibit is to be there for several months or longer, stronger support should be built around a store-bought tent. In the long run, you’ll save money by building your own. Pressure-treated wood will not harm butterflies. We recommend using pressure-treated wood or metal for posts and framework, especially if you live in a humid warm environment. Make the exhibit tall enough to stand without a problem. If you expect to be able to remove butterflies from the exhibit, a roof low enough to touch is helpful. If the roof is high, you’ll need chairs or a ladder to retrieve butterflies from the ceiling. Next, cover the framework with a large-mesh covering. We recommend shade cloth (available at greenhouse supply stores), window screen, or 1/2 inch hardware cloth. (If you plan to contain tiny butterflies, use smaller than 1/2 inch holes.)
Avoid areas where butterflies can get trapped. They will go to the brightest spot in the exhibit. Sometimes it means that they will work their way between the mesh and a post. Once in, they are trapped and will die.
If you have cats in your area, avoid mesh that will separate too much with pressure. Cats will climb the exhibit mesh. Knitted mesh is often better than woven mesh.
If you are planting in the ground, temporarily outline the flower beds with plastic ribbon, ground paint (available in aerosol cans), or water hoses. Make sure enough room is left to move about easily. Plants tend to grow larger each year and can soon overtake walkways. The above photo is of a 30×50 exhibit, metal framework, and shade cloth covering.
Below is a photo of the finished exhibit when flowers are blooming. Don’t forget to fertilize. Check the ingredient label to make sure that pesticides are not part of the fertilizer. Many lawn fertilizers have pesticides in the mix.
Mesh can be sewn together with a roll of wire. The seams of this exhibit (above) were sewn with both fishing line and wire. Located in Florida, it has survived over fifteen years of winds, including some hurricane-force winds.
Poles should be set in concrete. The amount of concrete depends on how long you wish the exhibit to last. If it will be taken down within a year or two, less concrete can be used.
Plant pests can become a serious issue in an exhibit. Mesh with larger holes allows beneficial insects to naturally enter the exhibit, devouring plant pests. To control plant pests, we recommend hand-squishing. If this isn’t possible, we recommend an insecticidal soap, applied early in the morning or late in the evening. As soon as the soap is applied, the plants should be covered with a sheet to prevent butterflies from landing on them. It should be thoroughly rinsed off the plants and into the soil a half-hour after it is applied. Insecticidal soap is deadly to butterflies in every stage, egg through adult.
Remember, Certified Organic pesticides are still pesticides. It is the difference between using a fly swatter or a stick to kill a butterfly. One is organic and the other is not. Both are deadly. All oils (such as neem oil) can kill butterflies, from egg through adult.
Parasitoids lay eggs in butterfly and moth eggs, caterpillars, or chrysalises. If a fine mesh is used, once parasitoids enter the exhibit, they are contained and become an even more serious issue.
Parasitoids will become an issue, eventually, if caterpillars are free to eat and pupate in the exhibit. Be prepared for those losses and the increase in the number of parasitoids in the exhibit. Most parasitoids are so small that we don’t notice them, we only notice the dead caterpillars and chrysalises.
Many of us begin with the idea of using a fine mesh to keep parasitoids and plant pests out. This will not work. They will find a way in and once in, are exactly where they want to be. You are supplying a buffet for them instead.
If you choose to raise caterpillars openly in the exhibit, be prepared for issues with ants, especially if you are in the deep south. Use Amdro Bait, offering it in salt shakers, laid on their sides. Do not place ant killer openly in the exhibit. You can spread Amdro Bait around the outside perimeter of your exhibit regularly, as a prevention measure and for control/eradication purposes.
If butterflies are allowed to lay eggs in the exhibit and you wish to raise caterpillars from those eggs in the exhibit, you may need to remove hundreds of caterpillars or add hundreds of host plants, as the existing ones are eaten. Protected from predators, the number of caterpillars can get out of hand. Some people keep only a few female butterflies, releasing most outside in nature. Remember, one butterfly can lay over 400 eggs.
Disease can become a serious issue for caterpillars and chrysalises. If caterpillars are allowed to crawl freely around in the exhibit, a time may come when you need to remove and euthanize everything, cut back all plants, and spray the entire enclosure with a 10% bleach 90% water solution. Nature keeps butterflies alive by killing 98% before they become adults.
In addition to flower nectar, fruit can be added to the exhibit. If ants are a problem, place the fruit bowl in a container of water or hang the fruit from a shepherd’s hook.
Choose your nectar plants wisely. The shade created by the mesh covering can affect how some plants bloom in the exhibit. If nectar plants are planted in the ground, this is a serious issue. Choose plants that bloom continuously, like pentas and some salvias. If plants are in pots, they can be changed out when they finish blooming. Some exhibits place nursery pots permanently in the ground. They then place the plant, in the same size pot, inside the permanent pot. The plants look as if they are planted but are easy to swap out when they finish blooming.
Walkways should be easily defined for visitors. Using two different colors of mulch works well.
Be prepared for winter. In areas where it freezes in the winter, an exhibit is not a pretty sight.
Irrigation is a big issue. Choose your method of watering your plants wisely. Do you want automatic irrigation? If so, creating raised walkways may be a wise decision. Muddy walkways detract from the joy of walking through your own little exhibit. If the exhibit is small, a water hose may be all you need. If it is larger, automatic irrigation can be the best choice. You can purchase everything you need for a small exhibit in any large hardware store, like Home Depot or Lowe’s.
If your exhibit is for you to sit and enjoy, add a bench or a couple of chairs. Think about the width of the walkways. Leave them wide enough for a wheelchair and for a wagon or wheelbarrow, if the exhibit is large.
If children are to be allowed in your exhibit, set rules and communicate them before they enter the first time. Enforce your rules. Nothing speaks louder than a child standing outside the exhibit watching the other children, who obeyed the rules, enjoying the butterflies.
Our rules were simple. 1) Do not touch the butterflies. Let the butterflies touch you. 2) Do not pick flowers. The butterflies need them to stay growing on the plants. 3) NO food or drink is allowed in the exhibit, other than water. Sugar and fats attract ants and other predators. 4) Stay on the path (clearly outlined by the mulch color).
If a toddler is in the exhibit and you want them to interact with butterflies, use caution. If the child is timid or scared, do NOT place a butterfly on the child. It will only scare them further. We placed butterflies on the back of one hand and held their other hand securely. If butterflies are on the palm side of the hand, they often close their hands, squishing the butterfly and/or breaking its wings. If the second hand is free, they may slap at the butterfly if it scares them. Emily (above) is enjoying two Julia butterflies on the back of her hand.
When it is time to add butterflies to your exhibit and you want to involve children, it is an excellent opportunity to ignite a passion for butterflies in them. Teach them as you allow them to unzip the container and allow the butterflies to fly free into the exhibit.
Watch for predators. Remove them as soon as you see them. Some will reproduce in the exhibit, multiplying your problem. You aren’t raising butterflies to feed other creatures. We understand this is how nature works, and rightly so, but it isn’t the way we wish nature to happen inside our exhibits.
Toads are voracious, eating many butterflies and moths. They can be removed from an exhibit and relocated but they must be relocated far away. One toad in our exhibit was missing an eye. I removed it about 500′ from the exhibit. The next morning, it was back in the same spot. Because of the missing eye, I knew it was the same toad.
Although they can be a bit of work, exhibits are immensely satisfying and bring joy and delight to our days.