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  • Brenna Pavan

Beautiful Butterflies & How to Help Them

Butterflies are a major pollinator in many ecosystems, and especially on Vancouver Island where we have some of the graetest butterfly diversity in Canada. In the Victoria area alone there were historically 40 native species that could be seen regularly. In recent years, habitat loss and fragmentation has been the main driver of decreasing butterfly populations as they lose more and more of the plants they need to feed on in various stages of their lives. Many of the native butterflies are non-migratory species and spend their whole lives in one main, open habitat. These open habitats often historically consisted of the garry oak meadows that were so common in the region and butterflies benefitted from the controlled burning of these areas by indigenous peoples to keep the areas clear of large shrubs and trees. As we continue to lose these meadows and other open habitats to development, invasive species, or the encroachment of trees and shrubs, the butterflies are losing their native habitats as well. Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) is considered to be one of the biggest non-human threats to butterfly habitat as it invades open, sunny spaces and quickly crowds out native meadow species.


Through their life cycle, butterflies go through four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult, though they only feed in the larval and adult stages. An adult butterfly is the flying stage that is most easily spotted as their dazzling wings float around flowers in the yards, fields, and meadows of Vancouver Island. A butterfly larva is the caterpillar stage, often found clinging to plants and munching on leaves. Each butterfly species has developed a close relationship with particular plants that provide nectar for adults or food for larvae, referred to as their “food plant”. The food plant may be the same for both stages, or it could differ between the larva and the adult. Larvae especially are often very particular about what plants they will eat, and often will not consume anything other than their food plant. Adult females must carefully choose these food plants to lay their eggs on so when they hatch into caterpillars they will be well fed. Similarly, adult butterflies carefully time their hatch from their chrysalis (the pupal stage) with the flowering of their own food plants.


Butterfly species are so closely tied to their food plants that without them their populations cannot sustain themselves. One of the best ways to help butterfly populations, and brighten up your space with flowers and colourful pollinators, is to plant native butterfly food plants. These will attract butterflies to your yard where they can lay their eggs, feed as caterpillars, cocoon themselves, and eventually become full grown adults. By simply planting some of these species in your yard you can support the entire lifecycle of an important native pollinator species. Another good way to support butterflies is to remove any Scotch broom that may be in your yard, or even better join in on invasive removals in your neighbourhood. If it is too large to be fully removed, simply chopping the flowers off of the plant can keep it from creating seeds and spreading further into the environment. Below is a list of some of the butterfly species that can be found on Vancouver Island, and following that is a list of native butterfly food plants to consider planting if you wish to attract and support these beautiful, delicate pollinators.



Butterfly Species on Vancouver Island

Grouped together by name and look, species considered rare and endangered have been underlined.


Swallowtails: Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon), Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus), Pale Swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon)


Whites & Sulphurs: Pine White (Neophasia menapia), Margined White (Pieris marginalis), Cabbage White (Pieris rapae), Sara Orangetip (Anthocharis sara), Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme)


Coppers: Purplish Copper (Lycaena helloides), Mariposa Copper (Lycaena mariposa)


Elfins & Hairstreaks: Cedar Hairstreak (Callophrys nelsoni), Grey Hairstreak (Strymon melinus), Western Elfin (Callophrys iroides), Moss’ Elfin (Callophrys mossii), Western Pine Elfin (Callophrys eryphon)


Blues: Western Tailed Blue (Cupido amyntula), Silvery Blue (Glaucopsyche lygdamus), Anna’s Blue (Plebejus anna), Boisduval’s Blue (Plebejus icarioides), Icarioides Blue (Icaricia icarioides blackmorei), Western Spring Azure (Celastrina echo)


Fritillaries & Crescents: Hydaspe Fritillary (Speyeria hydaspe), Western Meadow Fritillary (Boloria epithore), Zerene Fritillary (Speyeria zerene), Field Crescent (Phyciodes pulchella), Mylitta Crescent (Phyciodes mylitta)


Tortoiseshells & Commas: California Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis californica), Milbert’s Tortoiseshell (Aglais milberti), Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), Satyr Comma (Polygonia satyrus), Green Comma (Polygonia faunus), Hoary Comma (Polygonia gracilis)


Ladies & Admirals: Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella), Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), Lorquin’s Admiral (Limenitis lorquini)


Arctics & Satyrs: Common Wood Nymph (Cercyonis pegala), Common Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia), Great Arctic (Oeneis nevadensis)


Skippers: Propertius Duskywing (Erynnis propertius), Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris), Persius Duskywing (Erynnis persius), Arctic Skipper (Carterocephalus palaemon)


Other Rare Species: Large Marble (Euchloe ausonides), Taylor’s Checkerspot (Euphydryas editha taylori)


For more information on how to identify butterflies on Vancouver Island, check out Vancouver Island British Columbia Butterflies or Parks Canada for some helpful guides.



Native Food Plants


Native Grasses - one of the best things to plant in your garden to support native butterflies is native grasses, many species lay their eggs on various native grass species and just by having a native grass section in your yard you can support multiple species of rare or endangered butterflies, including the Common Ringlet.


Stonecrop - this native succulent supports the rare and endangered Moss’ Elfin butterfly through all of its life stages.


Wooly Sunflower - this is a good species to plant to attract many adult butterflies, and particularly can help attract the very rare Taylor’s Checkerspot butterfly.


Small-flowered Blue-Eyed Mary - these beautiful, small flowers can support many adult butterflies, but they also support the rare Taylor’s Checkerspot butterfly through all its life stages.


Sea Blush - these flowers produce nectar for many species of native adult butterflies.


Wild Strawberry - these native strawberry plants produce nectar for many native adult butterflies.


Yarrow - these plants can produce food for adult stages for various native butterfly species.


Oceanspray - this native shrub can support various species of caterpillar and their flowers then support many adult butterfly species. In terms of bang for your buck, these shrubs are often a great choice for attracting many species of butterfly to your space.


Stinging Nettle - is a very useful plant for supporting various native caterpillar species, its stinging nature helps to keep eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalids safe from predators while they grow.


Garry Oak - these tree species can help support garry oak meadow systems, but they also directly support and feed the larvae of many native butterfly species that feed exclusively on oak leaves, including the rare and endangered Propertius Duskywing butterfly.


Lupine - the large flowers attract various adult butterfly species, but it is also a key food plant in the lifecycle of the rare and endangered Icarioides Blue butterfly, particularly in subalpine regions.


By planting native species, and doing what we can to remove and control invasive species such as Scotch brrom, we can have large impacts on native butterfly populations. To learn more about gardening with native plants and pollinators in mind check out the sustainable landscape design section of our website or contact us with any questions, plans, or goals you might have!



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