A monarch butterfly perched on a thistle.

Even what seems like a small contribution — just a tiny flower pot or patch — can provide valuable pollinator habitat.

Create a pollinator-friendly garden: for the butterflies

Want to help butterflies? Think beyond providing flowers for nectar in the height of summer.

Many butterfly species we see in Canada don’t migrate. You can provide habitat and food for their entire lifecycle — eggs, larvae, pupae AND adults — throughout the year.

Whether you have a small plot in the big city or a few acres, transform your yard into a butterfly garden!

You’ll need:

  • Host plants: Adults need a place to lay eggs where their caterpillars will forage. (Plant species that will get eaten and not just look pretty!)
  • Mud puddles: Some butterflies rarely visit flowers. They prefer mud, poop (a.k.a. “scat” or “dung”), sap and rotting fruit.
  • Blooms from spring through fall: Don’t limit your garden to an end-of-July colour extravaganza. You’ll need a diversity of native nectar plants to flower over a few months.
  • Overwintering habitat: Consider not raking leaves to provide a butterfly nursery! Most butterflies in Canada overwinter as caterpillars, others as pupae. A few species winter as adults, hibernating in hollow trees, under bark and firewood piles, or in garden shed cracks and crevices. Few spend winter as eggs.
  • Sunshine: Make sure you (or your neighbours) have sunny spots.
  • Nectar plants: Most butterflies will feed from more than a few plant species.
  • Think about the role of your yard: Is it a habitat source (high quality patch that supports population increases)? Or is it more of an island? Some yards can provide for one butterfly species’ entire life cycle. Some are disconnected from other habitat patches. Walk around the block and view your neighbourhood through a butterfly’s eyes. Chat with your neighbours and see what they’re planting. Note possible connecting corridors between butterfly-friendly patches. Can schoolyards, boulevards and local green spaces where you live help support butterflies?

Choose native flowers and shrubs

  • Butterflies need nectar plants for food and host plants to lay their eggs.
  • Tiger swallowtails choose nectar plants like lilacs or bee balm; nearby willow, alder, or apple trees can host larva
  • Painted ladies choose nectar plants like aster, cosmos or zinnia; host plants include thistle, mallow or hollyhock
  • Monarchs choose nectar plants like, black-eyed Susan, Canada goldenrod, wild bergamot and common yarrow; host plants include the milkweed family. (There are four most common species of milkweed in Canada — swamp (aka rose) , poke, butterfly (aka orange), showy and common. Choose the species that is native to your area.)
  • To attract butterflies like the red admiral, tiger swallowtail and mourning cloak, you can also set up a nectar feeder using a solution of one part sugar to 18 parts water.

Did you know?

  • Sunny days are best for butterfly watching
  • Some individual butterflies live only a week, but the flight season for a species may be more than a month — and the migrating monarch “super generation” may live for several months
  • In B.C., butterfly season runs from March through October
  • Females are slightly larger than males — because she carries the eggs!
  • Butterflies and hummingbirds share many nectar flowers, so efforts to lure one may have the bonus of attracting both

A hummingbird perched on a branch.

How to attract hummingbirds

Is your yard or garden red enough? Hummingbirds are guided by their eyes! And many red-coloured flowers provide good sources of nectar.

Try perennials like red or purple hollyhock, pink or red coral bells, bee balm, summer phlox or sage. Annuals that attract hummingbirds include begonias, cosmos, geranium and petunias. And don’t forget shrubs and vines like hibiscus, honeysuckle and flowering currant. These plants prefer full sun exposure with shelter from strong winds.

Don’t see much action the first season? Enjoy the flowers and wait a year.

A bee in a bee bath.

Create a pollinator-friendly garden: for the bees

Canada is home to hundreds of bee species of all sizes. The smallest is the size of the head of a pin! Some live below ground, some above. Every single species is beneficial to plants.

Bees are our most important pollinators. They love to live in urban settings where there are short flight paths and a variety of different plants and flowers to sample.

In fact, bees are more likely to thrive in your backyard, community or patio garden and on mixed farms than on acres devoted to single crops.

Honeybees and other bee species are declining, mainly because of habitat loss. You can make a difference just by creating a bee-friendly space in your garden.

Learn more: Five steps to creating your own wild bee sanctuary

Build a bee house

Make a cosy home for bees by following these simple steps:

  • Use an empty milk carton (waterproof) with the spout cut off — leave the bottom intact — or a box about that size made of wood scraps (not cedar) for the walls.
  • Paint a wooden house a bright colour with exterior zero or low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint. At first, the bees will fly around taking mental “snapshots” of their potential new home, but they’ll soon learn to make a bee-line to their new abode.
  • Fill the box with layered stacks of brown paper nest tubes, which you can buy at a garden store. Cut the tubes to six inches (15.75 cm) long, closing the end with tape or a staple, or fold them in half. Commercial nest tubes are 5/16 of an inch (.79 cm) in diameter, the exact size of an HB pencil. Make your own by rolling a piece of brown paper around a pencil, then pinch off the end and seal it with tape.
  • Hang the house somewhere out of the rain, facing south or east, at eye level, once the temperature outside has warmed to 12-14º C (54-57º F).
  • Dig down below your garden soil adjacent to your bee house until you expose the clay layer, or keep a bowl of moist clay near your bee house for the masons to use as construction material.
  • If you plan to make more than one bee house, be sure they’re different colours.

It may take a full season for the bees to find your house. If you don’t have any luck attracting locals, you can also purchase mason bees from a garden store or local bee keeper.

Make a bee bath

Bees and other beneficial insects — ladybugs, butterflies, and predatory wasps — all need fresh water to drink but most can’t land in a conventional bird bath without crashing. “They’re like tanks with wings,” says bee master Brian Campbell. “They need islands in the water to touch down on.”

These three simple steps use ingredients already in your home. Your creation will also combat pests like aphids, because ladybugs that stop by for a sip will eat ’em!

  1. Place a shallow plate in your yard or garden at ground level where you’ve noticed bee activity. Better still, place the bee bath near sick plants to attract aphid eaters like ladybugs!
    Reuse a plate (maybe one that’s chipped), source one from a thrift store or use a plant pot tray.
  2. Add a few rocks to the plate to create landing pads or islands.
  3. Add fresh water but don’t submerge the stones. You won’t encourage mosquito larvae if you keep the water level low.

It’s okay if the water evaporates, refill your bee bath as needed. And don’t be afraid to move it around your garden/yard.

Provide nutritious bee food

Bees eat two things: nectar (it loaded with sugar and a bee’s main source of energy) and pollen (which provides proteins and fats).

Choose a variety of plants that flower at different times so there’s always a snack available for when bees are out and about. As a rule, native plants attract native bees and exotic plants attract honeybees.

Flowers bred to please the human eye (for things like size and complexity) are sometimes sterile and of little use to pollinators. Native plants or heirloom varieties are best.

Bees have good colour vision — that’s why flowers are so showy! They especially like blue, purple, violet, white and yellow. Plant flowers of a single species in clumps about four feet in diameter instead of in scatterings so bees are more likely to find them.

Bee species all have different tongue lengths — adaptations to different flowers, so a variety of flower shapes will benefit a diversity of bees.

These plants, organized by when they bloom, are just a few of the species that attract bees:

Early Mid-season Late
Blueberry Blackberry Aster (perennial)
Crabapple Catnip Borage
Cranberry Chives Coneflower
Crocus Dahlia Cornflower
Foxglove Hyssop Cosmos
Heliotrope Lavender Goldenrod
Hazelnut Raspberry Pumpkin
Heather Sunflower Sedum
Primrose Yarrow Squash