What Do Butterflies Eat? 6+ food sources for adult butterflies

Butterflies' main food sources are flower nectar, tree sap, and fruit juice, which they eat through their straw-like proboscis. Some butterflies even eat the liquid from mud puddles, animal dung, and carrion to get enough energy and nutrition for reproduction and the life cycle.

What Do Butterflies Eat?

Butterflies eat a variety of different foods that benefit their health and reproduction. The majority of butterflies are herbivores whose diet mostly consists of nectar. Adult butterflies get nectar from many different types of nectar plants. They can get nectar from flowers and vegetable plants.

Butterflies also consume tree sap. Depending on the species of butterfly, they may eat insects and pollen.

All butterflies are attracted to sugary foods and a liquid diet. 

1. Flower Nectar

Butterflies on flowers
Butterflies on flowers

Flower nectar is the main butterfly food source. The nectar contains sugars that give butterflies energy. Butterflies need this energy to fly and mate.

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Butterflies prefer to eat nectar from composite flowers. Composite flowers are large and flat in the middle with petals that fan out. Butterflies are attracted to several popular nectar-producing flowers, including milkweeds, daisies, sunflowers, and lantana.

2. Vegetable Nectar

Some vegetable plants produce blossoms that contain nectar. Common vegetable plants that contain nectar are:

  • Artichokes
  • Asparagus
  • Cabbages
  • Pumpkins
  • Radishes
  • Squash
  • Zucchini

3. Fruit juice

Butterfly eating orange
Butterfly eating orange

Butterflies love fruit, but they lack the mouthparts to chew food. This is why butterflies drink the juices from the fruit. Butterflies enjoy fruit juice because it is similar to nectar.

Fruit juice contains sugar that gives them energy and water to keep them hydrated. Butterflies prefer sweet, watery fruits. Some examples of these include strawberries, watermelons, and oranges.

4. Tree Sap

Tree sap is an excellent food source for butterflies, but it is difficult for them to get the chance to eat it. To get to the sap in a tree, they must break the bark of a tree, but they cannot do this. That is why they will wait for other animals to break through tree bark or for severe storms to cause trees to snap. It is in chances like these that butterflies can eat tree sap.

Tree sap benefits butterflies because it has sugar, nitrogen, salt, minerals, and amino acids. The sap also has a sweet taste that butterflies enjoy.

Common trees that are full of sap and attract butterflies are:

  • Ash
  • Elm
  • Maple
  • Oak
  • Walnut
  • Willow

5. Pollen

Butterflies do not eat pollen on purpose. Even though butterflies are pollinators, pollen is a solid form that is difficult for butterflies to eat. While butterflies feed on plant nectar, they may accidentally consume pollen. Luckily, pollen provides a small source of protein.

The Zebra longwing butterfly is the only butterfly that purposefully eats pollen. This rare type of butterfly collects pollen on its proboscis, mixes it with a liquid, and drinks it once it has begun to liquefy.

Zebra longwings then use the pollen to create a toxic chemical in their bodies. Cyanide is released when a predator eats this type of butterfly and will likely kill the predator.

6. Aphids

Most butterflies do not eat insects because they don’t have teeth to chew them. However, the Harvester butterfly eats insects. This rare type of butterfly is the only carnivorous butterfly in North America.

The adult Harvester butterfly enjoys aphids because aphids secrete honeydew. Honeydew from these insects is a sugary liquid waste. Harvester butterflies use their short proboscis to drain the honeydew from the aphid.

Aphids also help with butterfly reproduction. Female butterflies lay eggs in areas infested with aphids. When the caterpillars hatch, they can eat the nearby aphids. 

5 Additional food sources

Mud puddling behavior
Mud puddling behavior

Besides the flowers and tree saps, butterflies utilize additional food sources for more minerals and salts. They can’t get these nutrients from regular pollen, so they gather around:

  1. Urine
  2. Mud puddles
  3. Animal dung
  4. Carrion
  5. Sweat/tears

Many butterfly species will congregate around areas with urine and dung and ingest that instead of water. Urine and similar matters contain essential minerals and salts adult male butterflies need for successful mating and egg fertilization. Strangely enough, they prefer human or cougar pee.

They may also drink the sweat and tears of animals, especially if they need more salt in their diet.

Butterflies also feed on dead animals. They will suck on blood and rotting flesh. Butterflies secrete a liquid to lap up the fresh minerals when eating animal waste. They are not picky and will consume the waste and parts of any animal.

How do Butterflies Eat?

Butterfly proboscis
Butterfly proboscis

Instead of a mouth full of teeth, butterflies have a straw-shaped mouthpiece called a proboscis. The proboscis is a long tube that unrolls from the butterfly’s head when it needs to eat or drink. It is a delicate body part that can only break through soft surfaces. Butterflies use their proboscis to suck liquids from foods such as flowers and fruit.

Butterflies also don’t have tongues. Their proboscis and antennae have some taste buds, but most taste buds are on their feet.

What is essential in the Butterfly’s Diet?

Butterflies eat sugary foods that provide energy and nutrients such as nitrogen, salts, and amino acids to help reproduction. This is why they use mud puddles and animal dung.

Flying uses a lot of energy, so nectar is also an important part of a butterfly’s diet. Nectar contains high amounts of sugar, which helps butterflies with their energy levels.

Where Do Butterflies Find Food?

Butterflies find food in many locations, from flowers to sap and even muddy puddles. Their ideal habitat contains host and food plants, so they will mingle around until they find it. 

They are hungry insects that eat often and will usually visit the same place to get food. Butterflies use their sense of smell and sight to find food. They are drawn to bright, colorful, and sweet things.

How to feed butterflies?

To attract butterflies in your butterfly garden, make a butterfly feeder out of sugar water. Plant zinnias, dandelions, and coneflowers. You can also leave some fruit on a plate for butterflies to visit or make a mud puddle in a shallow dish. Add mud, sand, water, salt, and stones for the butterflies to sit on, mix it up, and set it outside.

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