Iowa State Publication Offers Tips to Attract Garden Insects

Establish pollinator and butterfly gardens using these habitat and plant suggestions

September 24, 2015, 8:48 am | Laura Jesse Iles, Nathan Brockman

Swallowtail ButterflyAMES, Iowa – Butterfly gardens can easily be created by planting a few of the insect’s favorite plants in a sunny corner of the yard. Gardening for Butterflies and Pollinators is a new publication for home gardeners wanting to establish a butterfly garden of their own and is available to download from the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Store at

Laura Jesse, director and insect diagnostician in the Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic at Iowa State and author of the publication said, “Flowers that provide pollen and nectar are great additions to any garden and are a huge benefit to butterflies and bees. Also, remember to include host plants for caterpillars – if we want the pretty adults we have to feed the kids!”

“For example, monarch butterfly adults will feed on many types of flowers but they need milkweed to lay eggs on and for their caterpillars to eat,” said Jesse. The publication was prepared by Jesse, Nathan Brockman, curator for the Butterfly Wing at Reiman Gardens in Ames, and Donald Lewis, professor and extension entomologist with Iowa State.

According to Brockman, it is important to plan ahead when making decisions to establish nectar plants beneficial to butterflies and pollinators. “There are a lot of wonderful plants to choose from when designing a pollinator garden," he said. "Some of the flower characteristics to consider when making your plant selection include color, shape, fragrance and flowering period, as these traits will affect which pollinators your garden can support."

The publication lists specific plants for attracting various species of butterflies and moths, and the host plants where the caterpillars will feed. Other garden habitat suggestions include offering shelter for protection, moisture for drinking and rocks for warmth. Gardeners also should avoid insecticide and herbicide use which can be detrimental to the insects.

“Pollinators are necessary for proper development of many fruits and vegetables,” said Jesse. “Without pollination we would not have the grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables that comprise approximately 35 percent of global food production.”

In Iowa, a statewide effort to establish milkweed plots (consisting of nine species) is happening through the efforts of the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium. The Consortium is funded by partnering agencies and organizations including Iowa State University which in 2015, planted over 10,000 seedlings at the 12 ISU Research and Demonstration Farms. Other locations involved in the project are Reiman Gardens in Ames and Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines.

During the fall, Jesse explains, Iowans may see monarch clusters migrating to the southern states and Mexico. “Because Iowa is part of the breeding range for monarchs, planting milkweed for the caterpillars and nectar-producing flowers for the adults is a priority of Iowa State entomologists,” Jesse said. “By creating habitat for butterflies and pollinators, everyone can make their backyards or roadsides an oasis for these important insects.”

PHOTO: Swallowtail butterfly - photo by Adam Varenhorst, Entomology, Iowa State University

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