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You need two things. Nectar rich flowers for food for the adults and specific host plants for the females to lay eggs on and for the larvae to feed on. Find out which species fly in your area and then plant accordingly. Of course do not use pesticides to kill the young! Even though exotic flowers can at times attract butterflies, it is better to use indigenous plants.
The following plants are great garden plants that may attract butterflies (sorted by region):
For further reading on this subject, Charles and Julia Botha's excellent Bring Butterflies Back to Your Garden is invaluable as a list of food plants.
Humans have reduced the area where butterflies can fly naturally by destroying their habitat, but modern gardens provide a new potential for at least some species, provided the plants we plant can supply nectar and larval food - plant local indigenous, but not all plants support butterflies and moths. During some years large numbers of butterflies can be seen, while during others there are far less. This has to do with many factors so one needs many years of data to determine whether the populations are really declining or not.
A second explanation is that we, as we grow older., are becoming less observant and hence we don’t notice the small things. We are conditioned by our culture to be attracted to the large and gaudy while many butterflies may be small. Fortunately many children do not suffer from this malady.
Some very large caterpillars (hawk moths typically) often feed on lilies. But mostly you should leave them as their (to some) disgusting appearance is the worst harm that they will cause. Several moth caterpillars are known to eat the leaves of clivias, lilies, etc, while some butterflies (Garden Acreas) are known to completely strip trees. While this can be viewed as a threat to a garden, it can also be viewed as a more natural ecosystem and you will have to make the choice whether you will let the larvae eat the plants, or not have any butterflies and moths in your garden.
The Garden Acraea (Acraea horta) - left - can sometimes destroy a tree to its bark, but never fear, mostly the tree will survive and the worst you will do is have a leafless tree for a while, BUT you would have fed a whole community. The reward for letting this happen is lots and lots of red butterflies in your garden!
Caterpillars often feed at night and find shelter during the day. But even so they have unbelievable camouflage and are really hard to detect. It takes a well-trained eye to spot caterpillars in the field! The best way to start off is to plant some trees which are known to attract butterflies, such as citrus trees, white ironwood and wild peaches. Once you’ve mastered the art of finding the larvae in your garden, you can start looking for larvae in the field.
We have just over 650 species of butterflies in South Africa. We know very little about our moths but it is estimated that there may be more than 10 000 species!
A great number (mostly from the Western and Eastern Cape regions) are only found there and nowhere else in the world. These are also typically the species that are under severe pressure requiring special protection.
Butterflies, as they are relatively small, have small eyes, and tend to go to the blue/purple range of flowers. Large butterflies such as the swallowtails and the Table Mountain Beauty tend to also be attracted to red flowers, but you can often found butterflies feeding on most flowers, as long as they have sufficient nectar.
All flowers are not good for butterflies and either may not have suitable nectar, or it may be impossible for the butterflies to access. Long tube-like flowers are generally inaccessible for butterflies as their proboscides (tongues) are not very long. Some of the hawk-moths have very a long proboscis and have no trouble in drinking nectar from flowers like petunias, honeysuckles, etc.
Why are there millions of white butterflies flying over Gauteng, Free State and KZN during some seasons?
Technically speaking, these butterflies are not migrating. Migration implies that the butterflies have to return to the locality where they originate from such as the Wildebeest migration in the Serengeti or the swallows that migrate to Europe every year.
The white butterflies in South Africa (mainly Brown-veined Whites, Belenois aurota aurota, left) originate in the Kalahari and in other arid regions of the Northern Cape. During some years, they have a massive population explosion where the numbers get so big that they eat all the leaves of the available food plants. If the adults stayed in that area, there would not be any food left for their larvae so they move off towards the east, and lay their eggs as they go along. They basically keep on flying until they die, but in many cases they actually reach the Indian ocean and are often still seen flying into the sea.
Our largest butterfly is the Emperor Swallowtail (Papilio ophidicephalus), left, which lives in our eastern forests and can be as big as 150mm across.
The smallest is the Dwarf Blue (Oraidium barberae), left, which can be as small as 10mm across.
This is actually rather an artificial distinction, and exists really in the minds of English-speakers. Butterflies and moths all belong to the Order Lepidoptera, which is coined from the Greek words for 'scale' - Lepis, and 'wing' - Pteron. The term refers to the tiny scales that cover the wings, like tiles on a roof. To the naked eye they look like coloured dust.
Wing scales of Eyed Pansy Junonia orithya madagascariensis.
There have been many attempts to clarify the distinction between moths and butterflies. But all have exceptions, as shown in these examples:
Butterflies fly by day, moths by night.
There are as many day flying moth species as butterflies - and many are more brightly coloured!
Moths are dull brown, butterflies colourful.
There are many colourful moths, and many dull brown butterflies.
Butterflies settle with wings folded over their back, moths with wings flat.
Geometrid moths often settle with vertically folded wings, and many butterflies settle with wings flat. A (fairly) reliable distinction is that if a Lepidopteran rests with wings folded roof-like over the back it's a moth - but there is at least one butterfly that does this!
Butterflies' antennae ('feelers') are clubbed at the tips, moths filament-like or feathery.
Whilst it is true that no butterfly has feathery antennae, many Browns (Satyrinae) have tapered filament-like antennae, and some moths (particularly the Zygaenidae or Burnets) have clubbed antennae.
Moths have hairy bodies, butterflies don't.
Many butterflies, particularly those found in cold areas, and the Skippers (Hesperiidae) have hairy bodies.