People are always finding damaged butterflies. Our instinct is to keep them indoors until they naturally expire. Others raise butterflies only to find that when the adult emerges, they cannot be released outdoors immediately due to bad weather. The question always arises, “How and what can we feed butterflies?”
(Photos are located lower on this page)
Before we say anything else, we want to remind you that a butterfly rarely eats anything the day it emerges. If you have a butterfly that emerged that day, do NOT try to make it eat. Wait until the next day before offering it food.
First, the type of food must be chosen. Because it is difficult to keep a plant full of nectar producing flowers blooming indoors, most of us use an alternate food. There are many types of food that will feed butterflies well. Fruit juice, 15% honey water, 15% sugar water, or Gatorade are the easiest for us.
If we use Gatorade, we often simply fill the Gatorade bottle lid with Gatorade. A small cup or votive candle holder can be filled with marbles and juice. A paper towel that is soaked in the liquid and placed on a saucer works great. The main idea is to provide the liquid in a manner that won’t soak the butterfly with sticky fluid. A small bowl with a plastic pot scrubber works well to provide food while protecting the butterfly from the sticky liquid. If you choose to use a scrubber, be sure to use a plastic one, not a metal scrubber.
Butterflies taste with their feet. To encourage a butterfly to drink, we gently hold the butterfly close to the body with its wings behind its back, as pictured. We lower the butterfly’s feet into the liquid. In many cases, it will lower its proboscis and begin drinking instantly. In other cases, it simply hasn’t figured out the fact that this thing that looks nothing like a flower is actually food.
Think of it as a puppy or kitten that has never drank from a bowl. With a puppy or kitten, you gently push its head until its mouth touches the food. When it tastes the food, you let go. It’s the same principal that you use when the butterfly won’t begin to eat on its own. Instead of gently pushing the butterfly’s head into the food, we lower its proboscis into the food. You won’t harm it as long as you’re gentle. They are much tougher than we think!
If it doesn’t begin to drink on its own, simply take a paper clip, toothpick, or other item and gently lower its proboscis into the liquid. Be gentle and you will not harm the butterfly. Because it has no idea what you’re doing, it will try to push the paper clip away. Be persistent for a couple of minutes. If you have lowered its proboscis into the liquid several times and it chooses not to drink, give it an hour or two before trying again.
- Lower its front legs into the food and straighten out its proboscis with a toothpick, straightened paper clip, or other long narrow object. Use caution. It will move its legs to push at the object. It doesn’t know you’re helping it.
2. Lower the proboscis into the liquid. Hold it there for about ten seconds.
3. Slowly move the object away from the butterfly. If it stops drinking, repeat. Sometimes it will take several tries before it realizes that the liquid is food.
4. Let go of the butterfly. If it flies to the window, repeat the process. It’s instinct is to go to light. You simply have to be patient and overcome that instinct for it, if possible.
If it won’t eat after three tries, you have two choices: 1) hold the proboscis in the liquid with the object for several minutes or 2) wait an hour and try again. If you hold the proboscis in the liquid, it will drink, whether it is doing it on purpose or not. A study of the proboscis shows that the movement of fluid up the food channel isn’t simply suction. There are several factors at work, causing the liquid to be drawn up, inside the proboscis.
Once you have fed your butterflies, check to see if their bodies are sticky. If so, play mother nature! Just pretend that it is raining and hold the butterfly’s abdomen and legs under a trickle of running water. This will wash off the sticky juice and add humidity at the same time. Remember that air conditioners and heaters dehydrate the air and butterflies need more humidity around them when they are indoors.
Fruit feeds any type of butterfly. Take a skewer or piece of bamboo (or something similar) and slip fruit chunks over it, as if you’re making a shish kabob. If the fruit slips down the skewer, use a bread twist tie underneath the bottom chunk of fruit to keep it from sliding lower.
Butterfly feeders rarely help in a garden. But if you have dozens of butterflies in a large screened room and wish to add additional food, you can purchase or make a butterfly feeder. Fill the feeder with sweet liquid, as we discussed above, and place a few chunks of fruit on top of the feeder. Hang it in the brightest area of the screened area where most of the butterflies congregate.
If your butterflies are in a habitat or container, always place the food on the brightest side. Butterflies are not known for their intelligence. The instinct to go to light is much stronger than the instinct to eat or mate. They will often stay on the bright side of a habitat and literally starve to death.