Butterfly Superfan


Have you ever noticed that superfans tend to have their own secret language when describing their particular interests? I’m thinking of cooks, musicians, computer geeks and more. It’s not that the language itself is foreign. It’s just that the truly passionate use everyday words in new, unexpected combinations that can totally mystify any outsider.  

This tendency extends to butterfliers — people like me who are butterfly enthusiasts. The extent to which we have our own specialized language recently became clear when one of Little Red Wagon Native Nursery’s customers looked at a label on one of our plants and asked what we meant by host plant.

So, given that this week marks the 25th anniversary of the Zebra Heliconian as Florida’s official state butterfly, I thought I’d focus on four butterfly terms directly relevant to this spectacular species:

  • Specialist
  • Generalist
  • Host plant
  • Nectar source

But first, a little background on the life cycle of butterflies.

Butterflies have four life stages:

  • Egg
  • Larva (also known as caterpillar)
  • Pupa (also known as chrysalis)
  • Adult

In each stage, butterflies’ needs are different. For instance, caterpillars typically eat plants (a few eat insects). Adults, depending on their species and gender, might obtain nutrients from nectar, fruits, liquified pollen, dung, or even puddles.

Some caterpillars and butterflies have specific dietary needs and obtain their nutrients from very particular sources (typically a particular plant or family of plants). These species are called specialists. Examples of specialists include the Zebra Heliconian caterpillar, which eats the leaves of passionflowers (Passiflora spp.), as well as the Monarch caterpillar, which eats the leaves of plants in the milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae). Plants that caterpillars eat are called host plants.

Zebra Heliconian and Monarch adults are generalists: the Zebra Heliconian can feed on nectar and pollen from a wide range of plants. The adult Monarch obtains its nutrients from the nectar of a wide range of flowers. Such flowers are called nectar sources.

The University of Florida has compiled a very comprehensive list of Florida butterflies with their corresponding host plants and nectar sources. It’s a great way to learn more about butterflies and their interaction with plants. 

Of course, if you’re interested in starting a butterfly garden in your yard or on your balcony, please stop by. We have lots of host plants and nectar sources that will get you started. Who knows? Maybe we’ll even convert you to the next butterfly superfan!