Hummingbirds and Butterflies
(This column was first published in the June 14, 1999
Some random thoughts about attracting hummingbirds
and butterflies to your garden:
- Hummingbird feeders have a point of local interest. Although they were
originally developed in the early 1930s in Boston and used in 1947 by
Harold Edgerton for his strobe flash pictures, they were first retailed
in 1980 by the Audubon Novelty Company
of nearby Medina, New York.
- Many people swear by these feeders. Ruby-throated hummingbirds, our
only regularly occurring Eastern species, visit them often, show little
or no fear of observers, and provide great pleasure to their hosts. They
are remarkably feisty little birds and
a male who chooses your feeder as part of his territory will often try to
chase away other males and even occasionally females. These tiny visitors
will sometimes return year after year.
- In the fall keep an eye out for rarely occurring western species.
Rufous and Anna's hummingbirds have been reported at feeders in recent
- Preparing the liquid for a hummingbird feeder is straightforward.
Dissolve one part ordinary table sugar in four parts boiling tap water.
Cool the mixture before filling your feeder and keep any left-over in
your refrigerator for later use. Experts recommend that you not add food
coloring, honey, gelatin or brown sugar.
- Hanging a hummingbird feeder carries with it responsibility. In summer
you should clean and refill your feeder twice weekly. Discard any
remaining sugar solution and wash it out with hot tap water. Do not use
soap. Once a month soak your feeder for an
hour in a gallon of water to which a quarter cup of bleach has been added.
- Hummingbirds have little sense of smell and respond mostly to color --
especially reds. That is why the false flowers on most feeders are red.
Avoid feeders with yellow markings as those attract bees and wasps. Keep
ants away by smearing caster oil on mounts.
- There are a number of garden plants that attract both hummingbirds and
butterflies. Among them are the flowers: bee balm, cardinal flower,
Mexican sunflower, common milkweed and zinnia; the shrubs: butterfly bush
and lilac; and the trumpet creeper vine. For best growing success, plant
these in areas that have plenty of sunlight. Whenever possible, choose
red cultivars of species that have more than one form.
- Some butterflies are attracted to very specific plants -- for example,
the monarch to milkweed, the great spangled fritillary to violets.
Similarly some plants attract only one or two butterfly species. If your
budget is limited, pick plants like those
listed earlier that will attract many species. Among those, zinnias are
surely the best; one list has them visited by 27 species, more even than
the highly touted (and non-native) butterfly bush.
- Many butterflies engage in a behavior called puddling. They congregate
in muddy areas where they drink fluids rich in salts and minerals.
Maintain a muddy patch of dirt and you may observe this activity.
- Pesticides pose serious dangers to both hummingbirds and butterflies.
The delicate butterflies are, of course, most effected. Virtually all of
the broad-spectrum and systemic chemicals will kill them and so will some
otherwise highly recommended biological controls like Bt. Not directly so
susceptible, hummingbirds feed on insects as well as nectar and in doing
so they build up concentrations of poisons. Don't attract these
delightful visitors only to destroy them; reduce the use of poisons in
I hope that you gardeners will enjoy a summer with
lovely hummingbirds and butterflies as well as lovely plants. -- Gerry Rising