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February 19, 2014

Extension Update: Butterflies are bountiful in North Florida

Live Oak —

By Carolyn Saft

UF/IFAS Extension Suwannee County Horticulture Agent

There are more than 765 species of butterflies found in North America north of Mexico.  Florida boasts over 180 verified butterfly species representing some 170 native or newly established species and 17 tropical vagrants.  We are so fortunate to have approximately 125 different butterflies in North Florida.  Within that mix, around 40 are considered either unique to the state or occur mostly within its boundaries. This diverse butterfly fauna is the highest of any state east of the Mississippi River and helps make Florida a premier location for butterfly gardeners.

Not only do they bring a smile to our face, they also play an important ecological role in our landscapes.  Butterfly adults help pollinate our flowers and the larvae provide food for many other critters including songbirds.  Most adult butterflies found in Florida rely on flower nectar for food.  While many tend to be attracted to a variety of available brightly-colored blossoms, different butterfly species have distinct color preferences, feeding behaviors, and proboscis lengths.  (The butterfly's proboscis is like a long coiled straw used to sip liquid nectar from flowers.)  These factors help determine which flowers a butterfly visits.   As a rule, small butterflies nectar from small flowers and large butterflies nectar from larger ones. Some butterflies flutter like a hummingbird while feeding, pausing only briefly at each flower. They can often gain access to nectar in long tubular blossoms. Others rest for some time on each blossom. A wide mix of flower colors, shapes, and sizes provides appealing and accessible food to a greater number of butterfly species. It also makes your garden more eye-catching.

Some adult butterfly species rarely or never visit flowers. They feed instead on tree sap, or the fermenting juices from rotting fruit or plant material, animal dung (droppings), and dead animal remains.  It takes all kinds to make an interesting world.

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