Butterfly House to Butterfly Habitat — a Change for 2024

Since 2021, the Ashland Nature Center Butterfly House has been supported and maintained by a dedicated team of Delaware Master Naturalist volunteers. With help from a few additional Ashland Nature Center volunteers and staff, they have been performing all Butterfly House maintenance, such as weeding, watering, planting, mulching, and needed repairs. They also have been stocking the House with local butterflies in the summer by catching them at Ashland and raising them from locally collected eggs and caterpillars.

Ashland Butterfly House, netted in the summer – by Deb Vickery

In previous years, the Butterfly House has been enclosed with a net from early July to mid-September to contain the butterflies that are released into the house. Inside the Butterfly House, Master Naturalist volunteers have provided educational activities for summer campers and informational support for visitors on Butterfly Open House weekends.

Getting up close with live caterpillars and butterflies – by Suzanne Herel
Releasing captured Tiger Swallowtails with campers – by Mary Pro

Last year, the team’s plant specialist, Melody Kasprzak, designed a new open-air garden adjacent to the netted Butterfly House, drawing lots of local butterflies to the blooming native plants. The team’s butterfly specialist, Suzanne Herel, used the new area to teach a class on local butterflies, providing tips on how to attract and protect them in your garden. Her next class, Get to Know the Butterflies of Delmarva, will be offered on August 21 (field trip August 24).

The expanded open-air butterfly garden – by Deb Vickery
Suzanne Herel’s butterfly class – by Deb Vickery

Introducing the Butterfly Habitat

Inspired by the success of the expanded open-air garden, the volunteer team, along with Ashland Nature Center staff, have decided to keep the net off the Butterfly House for the 2024 summer. The team will continue to maintain the existing gardens as a “Butterfly Habitat.” This provides several benefits for both the butterflies and the volunteer team.

For the butterflies, the Habitat can now accommodate their complete life cycle. Without a net, local butterflies will be able to fly freely about the garden, enjoying the flowers, nectar tray, and hanging fruit – and laying eggs. A Butterfly Habitat, unlike a pollinator garden, provides more than just nectar sources for butterflies. The Butterfly Habitat also contains specific host plants required by several local butterfly species as breeding sites. Female butterflies only lay their eggs on their specific host plants, which provide the required food source for the emerging caterpillars. 

Instead of catching butterflies, the team will focus on protecting select groups of caterpillars on the Habitat’s host plants. By protecting them from predators, they will be more successful in maturing, forming chrysalises, and emerging as adult butterflies to fly free throughout Ashland Nature Center.

American Lady Butterflies Start-off the Season

In the Butterfly Habitat this spring, an American Lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis) laid eggs on its host plant, Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia). The team helped protect the growing caterpillars by placing a protective cage over the egg-laden host plant, allowing emerging caterpillars to feed in relative safety from predators, such as birds, wasps, and other insects.

American Lady laying eggs on Pussy toes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) – by Deb Vickery
American lady butterfly eggs – by Deb Vickery
Cage-protected host plant – by Deb Vickery

The American Lady is an attractive butterfly, but it is probably best known among naturalists for the characteristic nests made by its caterpillars. The caterpillars create nests of silk and leaves within the Pussytoes, generally staying in this nest for protection during the day, where they feed on the outer layer of the leaves.

American Lady caterpillar – by Suzanne Herel
The caterpillar’s nest – by Deb Vickery
American Lady chrysalis – by Suzanne Herel

Seven American Lady butterflies were successfully raised from these protected caterpillars.

American Lady (Dorsal side) – by Suzanne. Herel
American Lady (Ventral side) – by Suzanne Herel

Improvements and a New Identification Guide

Some additions the team has made to the Butterfly House since 2021 include a butterfly photo mailbox, which contains large, laminated, color photographs of local butterflies. Much like the bird photographs in the bird blind, these pictures help visitors and summer campers identify local butterflies they might find in the Butterfly Habitat and in the meadows of Ashland Nature Center. We also developed a downloadable, printable butterfly identification brochure.

Photo mailbox – by Deb Vickery
Butterfly photographs – by Deb Vickery

Educational signs were created to identify various butterfly host plants that are planted in the gardens. The signs feature pictures of the plant, the butterflies that lay eggs on them, and their caterpillars. A QR code on the signs enables visitors to link to Ashland’s website, where more information about each butterfly can be found.

Educational host plant signs with QR codes – by Deb Vickery

This summer, the volunteer team will be providing updates on Facebook, showcasing local species of butterflies and caterpillars that are currently active in the gardens. Stop by the new Butterfly Habitat on your next visit to Ashland. Enjoy the newly constructed walkway between the old Butterfly House and the new garden, providing more up-close viewing opportunities of butterflies as they gather nectar from the garden flowers.

New walkway connecting the Butterfly Habitat gardens – by Melody Kasprzak