What Do Butterflies Eat? | Butterfly Diet

Butterflies are colorful winged insects with a fluttering flight. They first appeared on earth about 56 million years ago. Some species migrate long distances in winter whereas others seem to be permanent residents. In this article we will explain you in detail about the butterfly’s diet. If you plan to breed these colorful insects in captivity perhaps you should know what do butterflies eat in the wild as well as in captivity. Just to let you know that butterflies feed on a wide variety of host plants and nectaring flowers. Let us take a look at these facts one by one.

What Do Butterflies Eat?

Butterflies are herbivores. Except for few nearly all butterfly species eat plants that belong to a single family. The gray hairstreak, holly blue, Euptoieta Claudia, American painted lady, Hypolimnas misippus, and brush-footed butterfly are possibly the only species that eats plants of different families. The grey hairstreak and holly blue are thought to consume only flowers and fruits. However not all butterflies are lucky enough to find nectar since there are some that rely on rotten fungi, road kills, carrion and animal dung for their consumption. They live in northern Canada.

The hoary edge (Achalarus lyciades) butterfly breeds in deciduous mixed forests of the eastern United States. The larva feeds on Fabaceae and tickseed.

What Plants Do Butterflies Eat?

It is reasonable to assume that butterflies are regular tree feeders. Different types of butterflies eat different types of plants. Butterflies that belong to Vaga, Nymphalis, Satyrium, Polygonia, Papilio, Callophrys, and Limenitis families are likely to consume plants such as Fagaceae, Oleaceae, Rosaceae, Betulaceae, and Salicaeceae.

Generally butterflies do not appear to choose a feeding tree or hostplants by taste or smell. Instead they prefer the shape of a tree or shrub and if they like one they eat one. Butterflies may eat nitrogen-poor leaves that are quite rough. Some butterfly larvae prefer to eat herbs while others simply rely on trees or shrubs. Studies suggest that the herb-eating species are likely to grow faster than the shrub-eaters. The reason behind is that in trees there are certain leaves that are not digestible which indeed prevents the rapid growth of a butterfly.

Read More: What Eats Monarch Butterflies?

A butterfly larva eats plants of different families but these families are closely related to each other. All such plants include:

Chinopodiaceae, Ulmaceae, Moraceae, Bataceae, Urticaceae, Passifloraceae, Violaceae, Empetraceae, Lauraceae, Capparidaceae, Ericaceae, Cruciferae, Marantaceae, Loganiaceae, Cannaceae, Apocynacea.

There are certain butterfly species that seem to feed on different plant families as one plant group. These species includes checkerspots butterflies, Strymon bazochii, Precis, Siproeta, Tmolus echion, and Anartia.

A few species select plants that belong to the entirely different plant families. Prominent among butterflies are Ascia and Pieris rapae which consumes Capparidaceae, Resedaceae, and Crucifera. There is a mustard oil in all these plants which attracts female butterflies because a larva needs oil to grow quickly. The Appias drusilla of North America will eat Euphorbiaceae and Capparidaceae. The common shallowtail butterfly feeds on Rutaceae and Umbelliferaceae. Similarly the thicket hairstreak prefers to feed on cedar hostplants of C. gryneus. Now it’s time to know what flowers do butterflies eat in the wild habitat.

What Do Different Types of Butterflies Eat?

What Do Painted Lady Butterflies Eat?

The painted lady (Vanessa cardui) butterfly is quite colorful species of North America. The butterfly primarily feeds on aphid honeydew and flower nectar. Painted lady butterflies are ovipositors and they usually overlook any chemical discharged by hostplants for females are thought to provide nectar for adults even if it kills larvae.

Read More: What Do Monarch Butterflies Eat?

The Vanessa cardui, however, do prefer some flowers over the others. Flowers that are rich in nectar are likely witness the most number of butterfly eggs. That is to say that painted butterflies do not have special preference for hostplants.

They will only consume those flowers or trees which offer abundant resources of food even if they are dangerous to their broods. It also explains that painted ladies can compromise over the quality or the proper growth of offspring but not over the quantity.

Read More: How Long do Monarch Butterflies Live?

What Do Red Admirable Butterflies Eat?

The red admirable butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) breeds in the Asia, North America, and Europe. They will eat hostplants particularly those that belong to the nettle family. The butterfly diet consists of wood nettle, pellitory, tall wild nettle, mamaki, hops, false nettle, and probably stinging nettle.

what do butterflies eat What Do Cabbage Butterflies Eat?

The large white or the cabbage butterfly (Pieris brassicae) breeds in the Himalayas, North Africa, Europe, and Asia. Adult butterflies are rather choosy in their diet. They prefer to eat certain hostplants over others.  Their tendency to choose particular plant is not determined by their sense but by their past experiences.

Cabbage butterflies fancy eating mustard-oil-rich plants and there is a reason for it. The mustard oil has an extremely bad taste so much so that even predators like birds would not dare to eat a species that has already consumed mustard oil. As it turns out the cabbage butterfly remains safe from predators. Other food sources include flower nectar, radishes, cabbages, and undersides of the leaves.

What Do Yellow Butterflies Eat?

The dark clouded yellow (Colias croceus) or the clouded yellow breed in India. Larvae likely eat leguminous plants such as Colutea arborescens, Hippocrepis, aboideae (Trifolium pratense, Medicago sativa, Medicago hispida, Medicago polymorpha, Hippocrepis, and Anthyllis. Although less so often, clouded yellow also eats alfalfa and clovers.

Adult butterly consumes fleabane, vetches, dandelion, marjoram, ragwort, knapweeds, and thistles. The clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice) feeds on numerous hostplants such as soybeans, sweet clover, black locust, vetch, red clover, deer vetch, and alfalfa.

What Do Mourning Cloak Butterflies Eat?

The mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) caterpillars become so eager to eat hostplants minutes after hatching. Common among hostplants are American elm, Salix nigra, Salix aurita, salix phylicifolia, salix pentandra, salix cinerea, salix caprea, Alnus incana, Betula verrucosa Betula chenensis, hawthorn, poplar, and wild rose.

What Do Silver-spotted Skippers Eat?

The silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus) is the most widespread butterfly species in North America. The larva of silver-spotted butterfly will feed on herbaceaous plants as well as trees, legumes, and shrubs. Adults consume yellow flowers such as

  • Asclepias syriaca
  • Liatris
  • Trifolium pratense
  • Lathyrus latifolius
  • Thistle

What Do Southern Cloudywing Butterflies Eat?

The southern cloudy wing (Thorybes bathyllus) is a North American species and she feeds on extensive range of hostplants. The range includes

  • Hairy small-leaved tick-trefoil
  • Hairy lespedeza
  • Slick-seed bean
  • Ozark milkvetch
  • Slender lespedeza
  • Spurred butterfly pea
  • Butterfly pea
  • Roundhead lespedeza
  • Twining snoutbean
  • Panicled tick-trefoil
  • Spurred butterfly pea
  • Slick-seed bean
  • Amberique-bean
  • Florida hoarypea
  • Potato bean

What Do Northern Cloudywing Butterflies Eat?

The adult northern cloudywing (Thorybes pylades) feeds exclusively on the following Nectaring flowers. The larva eats desmodium, trifolium, fabaceae, lespedeza, and hosackia.

  • Prunella
  • Verbena thirstle
  • Dianthus armeria
  • Apocynum
  • Securiggera varia
  • Asclepias syriaca
  • Lonicera japonica

What Do Horace’s Duskywing Butterflies Eat?

The Horace’s duskywing butterfly (Erynnis horatius) lives in the eastern South Dakota, southern Texas, and northeastern Arizona to New Mexico. The larvae of a horace’s duskywing consumes leaves of white and red oaks such as Quercus stellata, Quercus virginiana, Quercus nigra, Quercus velutina, Quercus ilicifolia, and Quercus fellos.

The adult foods include plants that can reach a length of 4 – 5 feet. It includes;

  • Peppermint
  • Dogbane
  • Sneezeweed
  • Boneset
  • Buttonbush
  • Winter cress
  • Goldenrod

Two-banded Checkered Skipper Diet

Pyrgus ruralis larvae derive its food sources from herbaceous plants such as Horkelia fusca, Horkelia bolanderi, Potentilla drummundii, and Horkelia tenuiloba. The flower nectar provides food for adult butterflies.

Funereal Duskywing Diet

The funereal duskywing (Erynnis funeralis) consumes the following legumes:

  • Lotus scoparius
  • Olneya tesota
  • Robinia neomexicana
  • Medicago hispida
  • Lotus scoparius
  • Olneya tesota vetch
  • Vicia

Wild Indigo Duskywing Diet

The larvae of wild indigo duskywing (Erynnis baptisiae) mostly eat Baptisia tinctoria but they also feed on hermopsis villosa, Coronilla varia, Baptisia australis, and Lupinus perennis.

Great Basin White Butterfly Diet

Larvae of Pontia beckerii feed on hostplants including Brassica nigra, Schoenocrambe linifolia, Thelypodium sagittatum, Brassica nigra, Descurainia pinnata, Sisymbrium altissimum, Lepidium perfoliatum, and Isomeris arborea.

Pine White Butterfly Diet

The hostplants include

  • Abies grandis
  • Picea sitchensis
  • Tsuga heterophylla
  • Abies balsamea
  • Pseudotsuga menziesii

Blue Swallowtail Butterfly Diet

The butterfly breeds in the Central America and North America. She is mainly recognized by her amazing iridescent hindwings. The blue swallowtail caterpillar eats poisonous food such as Aristolochia. Adults will consume an extensive range of nectar flowers. Hostplants include pipevine, Virginia snake root, and Dutchman’s pipe.

Adult butterflies largely feed on nectaring flowers including dame’s rocket, lantana, petunias, verbenas, lupines, yellow star thistle, thistles (Cirsium species), bergamot, lilac, viper’s bugloss, azaleas, phlox, teasel, azaleas, butterbush, wild ginger, and buckeye.

Zebra Swallowtail Diet

The zebra swallowtail (Protographium marcellus) is a permanent resident of the southeast Canada and the eastern United States. The butterfly is so named because of its zebra-like design on its wings. The caterpillar swallowtail eats slimleaf pawpaw, common pawpaw, four-petal pawpaw, woolly pawpaw, smallflower pawpaw, and netted pawpaw.

Unlike other butterfly species the larva and adult zebra swallowtail is thought to consume annonaceous acetogenins that occurs in in hostplants. It is a chemical that seem to protect the butterfly from potential predators such as birds.

American Swallow Diet

The American swallowtail or the eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) is a state butterfly of New Jersey. The butterfly consumes several different herbs that belong to the carrot family but they are highly selective in their dietary approach. The hostplants such as spotted water hemlock, Canby’s dropwort, mock bishopweed, water cowbane, dill, wedgeleaf eryngo, roughfruit scaleseed, and Queen Anne’s lace.

What Does a Butterfly Need to Survive?

In order to survive butterflies do not need to feed on nectar and eat hostplants only but sometimes they must choose plants that contain mustard oil because the mustard oil is extremely distasteful to the butterfly predators. While hostplants provide nutritious rich food the nectar gives them nourishment and a healthy growth. Butterflies need both.

How Do Butterflies Eat their Food?

Butterflies eat hostplants and nectar by using their tongues. They actually suck the flower’s nectar through their tongue which probably serves as straw.

Chinopodiaceae Ulmaceae Moraceae
Bataceae Urticaceae Passifloraceae
Violaceae Empetraceae Lauraceae
Capparidaceae Ericaceae Cruciferae
Marantaceae Loganiaceae Cannaceae
Apocynaceae Cyperaceae Gramineae


Read More: What Do Grasshoppers Eat?


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