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Butterfly Gardening Basics

Swallowtail ButterflyUnlike many other insects, butterflies are widely embraced and celebrated for their beauty and charisma. In addition to their cultural significance and aesthetic charm, they make a very valuable contribution to ecosystems worldwide and are important study animals for ecology, evolution, and conservation biology.

There are about 18,000 butterfly species in the world, and Canada is home to 300 of these. Here in Ontario, we have approximately 157 butterfly species, which is just over half of the total for our whole country!

Butterflies are Insects

Insects All butterflies and moths are insects (Class: Insecta).

Insects are the most abundant and diverse group of animals, making up over 58% of the world’s known biodiversity.

Insects can be found living on land, in the air, and underwater, thriving almost everywhere except for the open ocean.

Insects are an important part of our ecosystems, and we still have much to learn about them.

Butterfly relatives include insects like this Golden-backed Snipe Fly (Chrysopilus thoracicus) and Blister Beetle (Meloe sp.), seen above.

Parts of an Insect

All insects share a common overall body design – they have:

  • 3 pairs of legs
  • 3 main body segments (head, thorax, abdomen)
  • 2 antennae
  • 1 pair of compound eyes
  • usually 1 or 2 pairs of wings when adult
Butterflies have all these features, and are excellent examples of the insect body plan.Click here to learn more about Parts of a Butterfly

Butterflies: Order Lepidoptera

Tiny scales lie like shingles on a roof together creating the colourful patterns on butterfly and moth wings. Photo courtesy: Thomas G Barnes, USFWS

Butterflies and moths belong to the insect Order Lepidoptera, which is a word that comes from the Greek words for “scale” and “wing.” This is because all the patterns and colours on the wings and bodies of butterflies and moths are made up of tiny coloured scales seen in the image on the left.

Along with their distinctive coiled proboscis (mouthpart) and big showy wings, these features make butterflies and moths different from all other insects.

The order Lepidoptera contains an estimated 150,000 described species (mostly moths) and there are an estimated 18,000 described butterfly species found globally. The earliest known butterfly fossils date to the mid Eocene epoch, between 40–50 million years ago. Butterflies are mainly day-flying (diurnal) and there are several other charactierists used to distinguish the differences between butterflies and moths. Click here to see Butterfly vs. Moth section.

Under Construction

Giant African Flower Beetle

Giant African Flower Beetle

These large attractive beetles are commonly referred to as Flower beetles or Giant African Fruit beetles. Although they appear similar to rhinoceros beetles, they are in closely related family Cetonidae, the flower chafers.

A close-to-home relative you may encounter is our familiar June Bug or the Japanese Chafer Beetle which is considered a garden pest. All these beetles belong the huge family of Scaraboidea, collectively known as the scarabs.

There are around 4,000 species of flower chafer beetles worldwide. In most species, the males have some sort of projection coming off their head which they use aggressively towards each other when fighting for a mate.

Flower chafer beetles commonly feed on rotting wood as a larvae, but will eat pollen and nectar of flowers as an adult. At the Conservatory, the adult beetles feed on rotten bananas.


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Owl Caterpillar, Caligo memnon

Owl Caterpillar

These caterpillars hatch from eggs occasionally laid in the Conservatory on the Heliconius plants (lobster claw and Bird of Paradise). After they form a chrysalis, they will emerge in a couple weeks' time as an Owl Butterfly (Caligo sp).

After the caterpillars chew their way out of the tiny white pearl-like eggs, they begin eating and double their size every 2 - 3 days by shedding their skin approximately 5 times. Within a few weeks, they can become the size of a hot dog!

After their second or third molt, they acquire what appears to be spines along their back. These are actually harmless tufts of "hair" that are soft to the touch. These spines might make a potential predator think twice before attempting to eat one.

Despite the fact they can reproduce in the Conservatory, we are constantly importing more from South America. We receive bi-weekly shipments of owl chrysalides from a Costa Rica butterfly farm, El Bosque Nuevo (


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