Summer without butterflies

efeuerJuly 23, 2014

I'm sorry to visit the forum and be Debbie downer, but I think I need some emotional support here! This summer has been such a washout. I saw one black swallowtail and two monarchs, apparently just passing through, but other than that there is nothing doing here.

Last summer I didn't do much in terms of planting, just a baby fennel and a couple of parsley, and I managed to raise eight or nine black swallowtails. I also found a few monarch eggs at the park and raised them. This year I did so much more! I started a butterfly garden last fall. I started a bunch of things over the winter, but since they were still small I also planted some nice annuals such as Zinnia and Tithonia. I put in dill and twice as much parsley as last year. And I'm not seeing a thing.

I saw one blue butterfly, but no sulfurs. There was one tiger swallowtail a week or so ago, but no more black swallowtails. Usually those two species are the mainstays here. If it weren't for the silver spotted skippers and the cabbage whites there would be no activity here at all.

I don't think it's just me. My neighbor put in a butterfly bush and says that she has not seen a single butterfly on it. I haven't been able to get out and about this summer to check out the local parks. I tore a knee cartilage in March and had surgery last Friday, so I'm not doing a whole lot of walking yet. I'm not even allowed to drive until this heals up a bit. It would have been so nice to have some babies to raise while I'm laid up!

The only good thing to come out of all this is that I have been able to gain some traction on the crabgrass and garlic mustard. My Gardening Commandment number one-never let a weed go to seed! (If you can help it.)


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I'm so sorry for your knee. Hope it heals soon:) I have so many monarchs when they hatch I'll tell them to head your way:) and the black swallowtails I have because until I went to my grandmas house and got the I have seen anything other than the cats I have.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2014 at 1:17PM
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docmom_gw Zone 5 MI(5)

Hang in there Liz. It is frustrating and sad and scary, but we all just need to keep doing what we can. Maybe you could focus on seed collecting. Do you know if you are allowed to collect seeds at the parks you've talked about before? I know Monarch Watch is always looking for seeds from any milkweeds from all regions of the country. They especially need species other than Common (Syriaca) because they are harder to find in large numbers in the wild.

Can you start some more parsley from seed right now? Here in Michigan it is perennial, and if you find eggs that are going to grow yet this summer and overwinter, then you'll have nice fresh sprouts to feed them. And you could grow them in small pots that you could just stick into the container with the cats so the leaves wouldn't wilt so fast. If you don't get BST eggs, then just stick them in the ground this fall for next year. Or, go on the seed trading forum and see if you can find some cool plants to wintersow for next year.

I'm sorry you are down in the dumps. I do know how you feel, though I finally got lucky this season. Hopefully, your luck will change as well.


    Bookmark   July 23, 2014 at 7:32PM
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Liz, one thing that I've learned about butterflies is that they can vary tremendously from year to year. This is especially true of Eastern Black Swallowtails in my garden.This year I have a lot, but I've had summers where I didn't see one. A few did arrive and left some eggs, but I didn't see the butterflies.

Still, the best way to have them visit is to have as many plants that they use as possible. For butterflies one needs to have larval food as well as flowers. Have you tried fennel? It's the best in my garden for the blacks. I assume you have lots of milkweed. Do you have vines for the pipevines? Bushes or trees for the Giants and Tigers?

The more plants you have the better chance that you will have visitors, but there is always going to be significant variation from year to year with some butterflies.

    Bookmark   July 24, 2014 at 3:51PM
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molanic(Zone 5 IL)

It really does vary a lot year to year. This year around here we have had unusually cool weather for most of the summer and it is predicted stay that way for the rest of the summer. Plants and butterflies were both late this year. Previous years I had early butterflies like red admirals and mourning cloaks in mid-April. This year I don't think I had anything other than cabbage whites until June.

Even then I wasn't seeing much of anything until well into July. It has just picked up in past few weeks. I am seeing at least one monarch most days, and am raising about 20 currently. The past few days I saw three gorgeous young tiger swallowtails (one female and two males), the first I've seen actually visit the garden this year! I kept moving my potted wafer ash around the yard hoping she would notice it, but it may be too late in the season for her now. Previous years I had tons of them in mid-May.

Last summer I didn't get to see much of anything. With family medical problems I spent so much time in the hospital and doctor's offices that I wasn't able to do much butterfly watching anyways. If it had been a great butterfly year I probably wouldn't have had the energy to raise them anyways. That is just the way it goes sometimes.

I figure as long you are up to it, it doesn't hurt to keep working on providing more habitat, either with planting or just planning for next year. Plus, I wouldn't be surprised if the activity in your area doesn't pick up soon. August into September is usually when I see the most butterflies and hummingbirds here. I think that is when they start moving around more in preparation for winter.

Although the butterflies probably don't appreciate it, the cool weather has been nice in many ways. I think we only used the a/c three days this year. It has also allowed me to catch up on some long overdue yard work that it is normally too hot to do in summer.

    Bookmark   July 25, 2014 at 12:04PM
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monkeybelle(7A NJ (Camden County))

Hi Liz,
Its not just you. Its been a disturbingly slow season in south Jersey! The first day I planted, I had visits from an eastern tiger, eastern tailed blue, and red-spotted purple, but they didn't stay and did not return. This time last year I had a constant stream of tigers. I'm hoping its just a delayed season because of the harsh winter. Things seem to be picking up but at an excruciatingly slow pace. I've had tons of cabbage whites as always, but I'm only just now getting silver spotted skippers, which are usually the first to show up for me. I also had an American Lady visiting this weekend. I'm holding out hope that mother nature is just running a little behind this year. I accidentally let my milkweed go to seed last year so I have it popping up all over the place. My butterfly bush is just now blooming. It has been an excellent year for bees, though!


    Bookmark   July 25, 2014 at 1:05PM
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I live in Maryland and just started noticing butterflies in my garden this week (July 26). It seems late to me but I guess its better to be late than never !

    Bookmark   July 26, 2014 at 5:38PM
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Butterflies are few in number this summer in 2 places that are usually swarming by now...I live in No. VA but spend summers in Mtns of Western NC....we usually have tons of swallowtails (spicebush, tiger and zebra) but I have seen very few. I have also noticed that the slug population is way down (my seedlings usually don't survive being planted out in Spring but this yr I found literally 3 slugs) AND the milkweed beetles that usually get into all the common milkweed pods are non-existent. IMHO it's a good time to sow and grow LOTS of's yrs like these that give plants a chance to rebound so that they can, in turn, feed more butterflies next year! Trying to look on the bright side :)

    Bookmark   July 27, 2014 at 7:52AM
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We have had the worst Summer for butterflies yet but i can offer a little hope. After weeks of NOTHING, i have had several butterflies in my garden in the past 3 days. Spicebush, black swallowtail, pipevine, tigers, fritillary and more so maybe they are just now getting around!!! Hang in there and dont despair... Summer is not over yet! Good luck with the knee!!!

    Bookmark   July 27, 2014 at 11:49AM
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terrene(5b MA)

Hi Dr. Liz hope you see more butterflies soon and that your knee is on the mend!!

I think the lep population does vary from year to year. It seems that if you establish your property as a fairly stable source of both host and nectar plants, the butterflies will find you over time.

This year has been pretty typical for butterflies so far. I've seen a normal variety, the most abundant being Papilio glaucus and fritillaries (I have lots of black and choke cherry trees & violets). Also other swallowtails, and the occasional Mourning cloak, comma or question mark, skipper, or azure, etc.

I've raised a half dozen Black swallowtails, and now have 5 Monarch caterpillars. Last year, there were zero Monarch eggs or larvae! I am thrilled to have some Monarch breeding this year and hope there will be more activity in August.

The bumblebee population seems to be way down however, which bums me out.

    Bookmark   July 27, 2014 at 7:20PM
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Dr Liz,

It has been a weird year all around. My crepe myrtle which was barely alive after last Winter bloomed a full month early in July. Bees and butterflies go crazy over the blooms. The nicer butterflies took a long time to get here too and are very few though it IS picking up. I found flat leaf parsley works best for BST this year. I have a ton of curly parsley and dill planted but they are only laying on the flay leaf. I think it is because it has flowers that look almost exactly like Queen Anne's Lace and the baby cats can chew the tender buds. Also, the red ants leave it alone but are all over the dill. Hang in there! You have done an amazing job!

    Bookmark   July 27, 2014 at 9:09PM
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Things looking up at last! A gorgeous, fresh tiger swallowtail was nectaring for 15 minutes at least on the tithonia this afternoon, and there are lots of silver spotted skippers. I haven't seen any BSTs, but I found a tiny cat on the dill. It is on a stalk which has completely gone to seed, so nothing soft or succulent there for a tiny baby to eat. I'll see if I can move it to some young parsley.

Reasonable bee activity here. I'm not sure what most of them are, but definitely some honeybees and lots of bumbles.

And a hummer has found the garden. He's visited 3 times. I'll have to get a pole and put out the feeder. Yay!


    Bookmark   July 28, 2014 at 5:51PM
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I noticed yellow phase tiger swallowtails in pairs on my tulip poplar today...I also haven't seen much in the way of butterflies despite having quite a lot of nectar sources and a few milkweed hosts for Monarchs.
I haven't seen a Monarch all year :(

    Bookmark   July 28, 2014 at 5:56PM
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I've had no luck until just recently when I found a black swallowtail cat, two monarch cats and four monarch eggs (saw her lay them this morning) but I do agree that there's not as much as I would expect. I planted so much this year. Joe Pye Weed, TONS of milkweed, Liatris, Heliatrope, Zinnias, Sunflowers, Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Butterfly Bush, Honeysuckle and Lantana just to name a few.

    Bookmark   July 30, 2014 at 6:50PM
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docmom_gw Zone 5 MI(5)

The best thing we can do is keep planting, and encourage our neighbors to plant, also. Everyone hang in there and we can teach the world how important these creatures are to all of us.


    Bookmark   July 30, 2014 at 7:48PM
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Glad its looking up! We have tons of bees (bumble, honey, carpenter and mason) and quite a few hummers but I have only seen one praying mantis and maybe three lady bugs this year, which seems odd to me

    Bookmark   July 30, 2014 at 8:00PM
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I am having the same issue. But, I've noticed wasps flying around the flower area in a routine. I'm thinking they could be the problem. I am looking for their nest to get rid of them. I got fennel, dill, lovage, parsley, monarda, agastache and buddleia. I saw one hummer and only one black swallowtail. A lot of sulphurs.

    Bookmark   August 2, 2014 at 10:42PM
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I saw a Giant Swallowtail this morning, a rare stray here in Wisconsin :) I have also seen a Pipevine Swallowtail this past week, a BST and a Tiger Swallowtail that comes by every day for my Butterfly Weed and Butterfly Bush. I am also starting to see Monarchs again, along with some Skippers and lots of Cabbage Whites. Haven't seen any Ladies lately, however...

    Bookmark   August 3, 2014 at 2:07PM
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docmom_gw Zone 5 MI(5)

I haven't seen any more Monarchs recently. But, they are around, because I'm finding eggs in several different places. My other pollinator numbers are still way down, though I am seeing some. I'll be interested to see how next year is.


    Bookmark   August 3, 2014 at 8:43PM
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I'm seeing all kinds of pollinators, from bees to Soldier Beetles, but not in the usual places. It's weird. My Veronica goes untouched, and Gooseneck Loosestrife, a long ignored pest, is an American Lady fave. My Tithonia and Ageratum go ignored, and even the Monarchs don't seem that interested in my Liatris lingulistylis.
Most of the pollinators are flocking to the Catmint, incarnata and remaining Valerian. Lots of bees:) along c bumbles, sweat bees and on of my fave Hymenopterans, Sphex, an impressive wasp that hunts Katydids (Not Cats) for its larvae. And of course, flocks of those cute little hoverflies that like everything.

    Bookmark   August 4, 2014 at 12:00AM
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