National Learn about Butterflies Day

Yes, that’s really the name of the holiday – “Learn About Butterflies Day.” You may not get out of school or work on that day, but March 14 is the official national holiday set aside to promote learning about butterflies. So let’s learn something, okay?

We have eight lush gardens at the Virginia Zoo, designed and maintained by our Horticulture department. One of them is our Butterfly Garden. In summer it is stocked with nectar flowers such as lantana, annual cosmos, gomphrena, impatiens, vinca, pentas, zinnias and tithonia to attract the butterflies. Parsley and milkweed feed hungry baby butterflies – caterpillars.

Perennials include purple coneflower, butterfly weed, Joe Pye weed, verbenas, hardy lantana and sedums. Rising above the flower beds, shrubs and trees offer butterflies shelter and nectar, too. Abelia, butterfly bush, chaste tree and glory bower tree are just some of the varieties.


Nectar plants are very important to attract butterflies, as this is their main source of food. They only ingest liquids. Butterflies have taste buds on the tips of their tongues, and female butterflies also use taste sensories on their feet. This allows them to detect if the flower they land on is a good place to lay eggs.

Butterflies reproduce by linking themselves tail to tail. The eggs hatch into larvae or caterpillars, and they feed on the plant where the female laid the egg. Some species are pests because they can damage crops or trees in their larval stage. When fully developed, the caterpillar enters the next stage of life, called pupa, when it becomes a chrysalis or cocoon.

When metamorphosis is complete, this hard shell cracks, the adult butterfly emerges, the wings expand and dry off, and it flies away. Most butterflies stick close to home, but some, such as the monarch, migrate thousands of miles. Some butterflies take only a few weeks to go through all the phases of their life cycle, but others in cold locations take several years to pass through the life cycle.

Some butterflies have evolved with camouflage, mimicry or bad taste to evade predators. Others are pollinators of some plants, and caterpillars of some butterflies eat harmful insects. Butterflies and caterpillars are an important part of the food chain for birds and other animals.

Butterflies are among the most beautiful and popular creatures in the animal kingdom. There are many kinds of butterflies, each with their own beautiful characteristics and colors. Get to know some of the 18,500 species by visiting the Butterfly Garden, which is located next the Australia Walkabout, after it is in full bloom this summer.

View more information on the other gardens at the Virginia Zoo.