- Butterfly gardens

The Wonderful World Of Butterflies

Butterflies have fascinated us for their beauty, frailty and the mystery surrounding its life. For time immortal, the beauty of butterflies had not only inspired poetic and artistic imagination, but also has captured the curiosity of even of the small children.

It is clear that even our ancestors were moved by their behavior. When they noticed thousands of butterflies migrating towards “Sripada” (the sacred mountain which the Buddhists believe the Buddha’s foot print was stamped) during the pilgrim season, they believed that the butterflies were migrating to pay homage to the Buddha. Thus they went to the extent of naming the most sacred mountain of Sri Lanka, the Sripada, as “Samanala kanda”.

At present, though this migration still takes place in some areas of Sri Lanka, it could not been seen in most of the areas, due to human intervention on the environment. Thus it is sad to note that most of the present younger generation, has not seen this nature’s fascinating spectacle. Still there is hope, as environmentalist and others who have taken interest in this subject, has learned that by providing the necessary environment, we could still recreate this vanishing butterfly migration.

Researchers have found through fossil evidence, the butterflies have been in this earth for over 30million years. When classifying butterflies, some scientists have earlier described the butterflies being belonging only, to eleven (11) families, then subsequently it changed into two (2) super families and five (5) families. At present most scientists have classified butterflies belonging to three (3) super families and five (5) families. They are:

1 True Butterflies-(Super family, Papilionoidea)

2. Skippers-( Super family, Hesperioidea)

3. Moth Butterflies-( Super family, Hedyloidea)

And within these super families, the 05 butterfly families, are listed as follows

(1)Papilionidae-Described as Swallow tails, Apollo and Bird wing butterflies

(2)Pieridae-Mostly White and Yellow butterflies

(3)Lycaenidae-Described as, Gossamer-winged, Blues, Coppers, Hairstreaks and Harvesters(eat harmful insects)

(4)Riodinidae-With metallic spots in wings. They are also called ‘metal marks’

(5)Nymphalidae—Brush -footed butterflies.

It has to be noted that butterflies, are listed under the sub order Rhopalocera(club-antenna) and Moths, under sub order Heterocera(varied antenna). Both these suborders fall within the order Lepidoptera.

It is estimated there are about 12000-24000 Butterfly species and about 120,000-150,000 moth species living in this world.

As per the 2007, Red List of IUCN, there are 243 species of butterflies in Srilanka, out of which 20 species are endemic.

Differences between Butterflies and Moths

When studying butterflies, it is important to know clearly, the difference between butterflies and the moths, as there are large numbers of moths as compared to butterflies thus, there could be confusion in identification. The main differences between a butterfly and a moth are as follows:


1. The end of the antenna is a lump. However the skipper butterflies have a formation of a hockey stick at the end of its antennas

2. Normally keeps the wings together when resting

3. Have long thin bodies

4. Normally active in day time, evening and early morning

5. The caterpillar has few spines or hairs. They are not poisonous.


1. Some antennas are long and are pointed at the end; most antennas have hairs, like in a bird feather.

2. Normally keeps the wings stretched when resting.

3. Have flat or rounded bodies

4. Normally active in night time (Get attracted to light)

5. The caterpillar has many spines or hair. They are poisonous

The life cycle of the butterfly commences with the laying of an egg or several eggs on a Host Plant, it changes to a Caterpillar then to a Pupa and finally emerge as an adult butterfly. Then it flies in search of Nectar Plants with flowers, sip its nectar and get fully ready for re-production.

Now, a question arises, what are Host Plants and Nectar Plants.

Host plants

It is the plant that is needed for the continuity of its species. It is the plant that gives it the first food. Generally every butterfly species have its own host plant or several plants. However if we destroy host plants selected by the butterflies the particular butterfly species get eliminated from the face of the earth.

Nectar plants

These are plants where the butterflies go for their nectar intake. However it has to be noted that all species of butterflies do not depend for nectar for their survival. Their food is juices from fallen fruits, sap of the trees or juices extracted from beans of trees, juices from dead animals and petrified meat, and juices from logs of dead trees.

Also it is interesting to note that though butterflies have specific host plants where the female identifies by its smell, when going in search of nectar, they would go for any plant having flowers with nectar. The only difficulty is that those butterflies having a short proboscis, cannot take nectar from large flowers and they will have to be satisfied with small flowers having nectar.

Butterflies Relationships with other animals

As mentioned above, though the butterflies depend on the host plants for survival, there is one species of butterfly in Sri lanka, namely the Ape Fly, which is an exception. In this species, the female butterfly lays its eggs on plants having white spider mites(Coccidae) since she knows that her offspring’s food is the spider mite.

However the most fascinating relationship the butterflies have is with ants, especially with red and green ants. Normally such butterfly species who relates with ants, lay their eggs on a branch or stem where there are red ants. The red ants will never attack or eat the butterfly egg. They allow it to thrive and consume the soft leaves of the host plant. Once the caterpillar grows in size, from its body a juice like honey emanates, and the ants drink it with pleasure. In Lieu of, this food supply, ants do not harm the butterfly and protect it from enemies as well. When the caterpillar is ready for transformation as a Pupa and then as an adult butterfly, the ants takes the butterfly caterpillar to its nest, and protect it. When the adult butterfly emerges from pupa, the ants again take or direct the adult butterfly from the nest and release it, to continue its life.

Most of such butterflies belong to the Lycaenidae family. It is reported that in Srilanka the following species have a relationship with ants: The Lesser Grass Blue, The Centaur Oakblue, The Lime Blue, The Gram Blue, The Grass Jewel, The Common Cerulian, The Large Oak Blue, The Common Acacia Blue, Yam fly, The Long-banded Silverline and the Slate Flash

It is also reported that out of the 135 species of the Lycaenidae family,in Australia, half of them have relationship with green ants as mentioned above. However a species called Moth Butterfly,also living in Australia, whose caterpillar is like a Military tank, enters the ants nest,consume the ant larva and escape unscratched, after it get trans formed as a Butterfly in the ants nest.

Behavior to overcome attacks from predators

Like any other animal butterflies too have enemies. Generally, adult butterflies and their caterpillars fall victim to their enemies. They are the Birds, Wasps, Lizards, Serpents, Frogs, Dragonflies, Praying Mantis, Spiders and small animals’. Also action of man as well as fungus and lichens also affect the Butterfly lives. It has been estimated that 95% of butterfly species get destroyed by enemies, before they become adults.

Hence caterpillars and adult butterflies, adopt various ruses to overcome their preditors. Some of them as are follows:

(1)Having poisonous bodies – The Tiger butterflies who’s host plant is the ‘Wara’ tree (Milk Weed), are avoided by Birds. The reason being, the caterpillar which consumes the leaves of this poisonous plant, as well as the butterfly which emerges from the pupa are poisonous. By mistake if a bird consumes such a caterpillar or a butterfly, it has been observed that the bird fall sick and vomits the food.

(2) Camouflage – The caterpillar of the Lime Butterfly species, adopt the pattern of a bird dropping, and this ruse helps it to avoid the attack from birds, and thereby escape death.

The endemic Blue Oakleaf butterfly is world famous due to its camouflage. The top of the fore wings are Blue, White and Black colored. Undersides of the wings are completely brown with different marks. The wings when folded appear like a dried leaf. When it is pursuit by a bird, it flies and perch on a branch or a trunk of tree, upside down. Then, it flutters its body, as if a leaf of the tree is moving due to the wind, completely making the bird perplexed, and the bird, fly’s away unable to locate it.

(3)Display of False Eyes – Some species like the Blue Mormon, Common Mormon and Red Helen, have caterpillars with marks on their bodies like large eyes. This helps them, to scare away enemies.

(4)Hide – Most of the caterpillars hide under leaves, or on stems during day time to avoid being captured by predators.

(5)Injecting a poisonous Gas – Some butterflies like Common Blue Bottle, Common Jay and Tailed Jay have caterpillars, with appendages on their heads known as Osmaterium. It has been observed that when they are attacked, they inject vaporous bad smelling gases, which keep their enemies at bay.

(6)Mimicry – Scientist have observed that butterflies which are avoided by birds have a similar body formation and also a similarity in flight. This phenomenon was noted by Fritz Miller and given the name Millerian Mimicry in his honor. Example of such butterflies is Blue Tiger, Glass Blue Tiger and Glossy Tiger. However some butterfly species realizing that if they take the form of such butterflies which escape death from enemies, take the former butterfly species form. The poisonous butterfly is treated as the Model and the non poisonous butterfly is treated as the Mimic. This type of Mimicry is known as Batecian Mimicry, so named in honor of H. W Bates who discovered this Phenomena. A good example of, such a mimicry is that of the non poisonous Common Mormon. The female of this species mimic Crimson Rose and Common Rose butterflies which are poisonous. Also The Common Mime, is also a famous butterfly that mimics poisonous butterflies.

(7)Speed – Some butterflies use speed of flight to escape from enemies. Some examples are Great Orange Tip, Pioneer and Painted Lady who flies at a great speed to avoid predators.

Special Behavior of Butterflies

(1) Enhancing strength. To ensure laying of more eggs, as well as to compete with other butterflies to get a female partner, they need added strength. It has been now established, that Butterflies congregate at mud puddles not only to quench their thirst, but to obtain minerals and other chemicals to strengthen their bodies. Species which indulge in such action are Roses, Emigrants, Tigers, Crows, Rajahs, Oak Blues, Line Blues, and Hedge Blues etc. We should not forget g that they get their strength from flower nectar as well. Butterflies that prefer other means of minerals from rotten fruit, juices of dead animals etc such as Black Rajah, Twany Rajah, Baron, Gaudy Brown, Baronet, Southern Duffer and Blue Oakleaf use these minerals to enhance their strengths.

(2) Territorial Behavior. We know that birds sing from top of a branch or a building in the mornings and evenings, mainly to demarcate their territories as well as to find a mate. Scientists maintain, that the practice of butterflies Perching and Patrolling, are acts of demarcating territories, as well as mate locating flights. Sometimes this type of activity is called Hill topping, since some species await for females, perching at a higher elevation, as on top of a boulder. Such butterflies species are Bird wings and Roses.

(3) Spraying of Perfume. It is fascinating to know, to attract a partner male butterflies spray perfumes known as Pheromones on female butterflies. It has been recorded when the male butterfly identifies a suitable female, it flies behind her and spray on her body from a brush like appendage, at the end of her body having about 400 hairs, sticky perfumed pheromone. The female get attracted to the male and court together for about 04 hrs. The Common Jay, and Dark Blue Tiger are some of the species identified as indulging in such practices.

How to establish a butterfly garden

To protect the beautiful butterflies, observe their interesting behavior, and to ensure that they will live for future generations to appreciate, it is the duty of knowledgeable Sri lankens to establish butterfly gardens in their home gardens, as well as any land they have authority.

The Wildlife and Nature Protection Society with the help of IUCN, as a pioneering move, established, 100 Butterfly Gardens in schools in 10 Districts of our country. Colombo’ s Lady Ridgeway Hospital has a beautiful Butterfly Garden Due to dedicated Doctors. Some Government Departments are also, now establishing Butterfly gardens in available spaces.

To establish butterfly gardens you should have few Host plants, Nectar plants and land space. At the inception, it is recommended to plant ‘Adana Hiriya’ ‘Wara’ ‘Aththora’ ‘Akkapana”,Kiri Aguna wel’, as Host plants and ‘Balunakuta’, Shoe flower, Trdex, Zeeniyas, Ixora as Nectar Plants. A used earthen curd milk pot with mud, sunk to floor level and a container to hold some ripe fruits will be sufficient for a small garden. To establish a large garden expert advice is needed.

Douglas B Ranasinghe

Former President

Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Srilanka