Do you ever wonder how some gardens are not only full of vibrant, beautiful blooms, but also colorful dancing butterflies? We do too—and after seeing our new Butterfly Roses, we were inspired to take a field trip to the Butterfly Farms in Vista, CA, a suburb of sunny San Diego. Although this non-profit farm is just a little over a year old, we were able to learn some pretty interesting facts from Tom Merriman and Pat Flanagan, the knowledgeable and enthusiastic gentlemen who run it.

A butterfly in the vivarium.
A butterfly eating watermelon.
Caterpillars in the Butterfly Farm vivarium
Butterfly at the Butterfly Farm in Vista, CA.
An orange butterfly in the vivarium.
Caterpillars in the Butterfly Farm vivarium
A butterfly in the butterfly house.

How Butterfly Farms Began

Merriman and Flanagan started the farm in 2013 after recognizing a need to educate the public on the importance of the preservation of pollinators, like the butterfly.

A primary focus for the farm is the monarch butterfly, as it is currently endangered and nearing extinction at a rapid rate. In 1996 there were almost a billion monarchs on the east coast, and today there are approximately 56 million—an 80% decrease in the last 20 years. On the west coast, there were once over a million, and now just a few hundred thousand remain—an 80 to 90% decrease.

So, why is this happening? Herbicide and pesticide use, along with land development projects, are killing milkweed plants—the monarch butterfly’s lifeline.

What They Do

The farm focuses its efforts on research, conservation and education. Schools often organize field trips to the farm–we were even joined by a group of preschoolers during our visit. They teach in an outdoor classroom, where we learned about the various types of butterflies, from the Anise Swallowtail, which feed on anise as caterpillars, to the Painted Lady, one of the most colorful butterflies found all over the U.S.

We also learned about the caterpillar life cycle, the great monarch migration (south and west for the fall and winter) and other interesting butterfly facts. The farm works closely with schools and institutions, and they set up a pollinator garden and monarch waystation—a place for migrating butterflies to stop for shelter and sustenance—at the Del Mar Fair.

Visitors to the farm also have access to the butterfly vivarium, which is the largest in Southern California. The vivarium consists of various plants and native butterfly species. We entered the vivarium holding a small cube of watermelon, hoping to attract the butterflies with its sweetness.

Fun Butterfly Facts

Did you know that butterflies:

  • Taste with the little hairs on their feet?
  • Smell with their antennas?
  • Know the difference between plants to eat and plants on which to lay its eggs?
  • See in color and are attracted to bright colors?
  • Are cold-blooded insects?
  • Sleep in the cold and fly when it’s warm (ideal body temp is 86 degrees)?
  • Monarchs are poisonous?
  • Caterpillars have 12 eyes?

More interesting facts:

  • Every butterfly lays a different color egg on a different part of the plant (monarchs lay a white egg).
  • There are about 24,000 different butterfly types around the world.
  • Butterflies don’t live long—only 2 to 6 weeks on average. Some small ones only live 2 to 3 days.
  • Male monarchs have two black dots on the wings, females don’t.
  • Moms lay thousands of eggs over their two-week life.
  • One out of 100 eggs left in the wild become a butterfly (farms can get 80 to 90).
  • It’s not easy growing butterflies.
  • The three monarch populations in the U.S. are: California, Oregon and Washington.

How to Start a Butterfly Garden

1. The number-one rule to follow when starting a butterfly garden is no pesticides in your yard!

2. Milkweed is imperative to attracting monarchs. The caterpillars eat the milkweed, and this is also where the butterfly lays its eggs. There are 140 different types of milkweed, 23 of which grow monarchs. Contact your local nurseries to find out if the right milkweed is available.

3. The other top five plants that attract butterflies to your garden include: Cosmo daisies, sunflowers, Mexican sunflowers, the California poppy and lantana.

4. Keep in mind that you are going to get caterpillars, and they are going to eat your plants. Just cut them back and they’ll grow right back—it’s worth it!

 

Create a butterfly garden by simply adding the right flowers and plant life to your garden. Not only will you be able to enjoy watching them flutter about, you’ll also be doing your part to help save the declining population of these pretty little pollinators. Also, visit your local butterfly farm to learn more! We’d like to extend a special thank you to Tom and Pat at Butterfly Farms for all the great information, and for making us aware of such an important cause!