What do Butterflies Eat and Drink? (Detailed Guide)



Written by Katie Piercy

Butterflies do not technically eat, given that all their food needs to be slurped up using their tube-like proboscis. However, their main food is sugary nectar. Some species branch out from this, feeding on faeces, rotten fruit and corpses.


What do butterflies eat and drink?

Brimstone butterfly

Butterflies do not eat in the way that we do, instead, they slurp up their food in a liquid form. For the majority of butterflies, their food consists of the nectar produced by flowering plants.

Many flowers have even adapted their form so that butterflies can reach their nectar but other animals can’t. They do this by creating an elongated flower so that the long proboscis of the butterfly can reach the nectar, but other animals can’t.

Butterfly SpeciesLarval Food Plants
Monarch ButterflyMilkweed (Asclepias spp.)
Painted Lady ButterflyThistle (Cirsium spp.), Malva (Malva spp.)
Black SwallowtailParsley (Petroselinum crispum), Dill (Anethum graveolens)
Eastern Tiger SwallowtailWild Cherry (Prunus spp.), Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Red Admiral ButterflyNettle (Urtica spp.)
Table 1: Butterfly Larval Food Plants

Yet, some butterflies do have more unusual feeding habits. The harvester butterfly, for example, is found from Canada down to Texas, living in swampy areas or woods. It is unusual in its food of choice because rather than sipping nectar from nearby flowers it spends its time following woolly aphids and sucking up the honeydew they release. Honeydew is a waste product made up of sugars and excess liquid the aphids excrete while they feed on the sap of plants.

As well as drinking nectar and other ‘foods’, butterflies do also drink water.

Desiccation is a problem for most insects and can cause them to quickly dehydrate and die in the heat. Drinking water helps to mitigate this. They can drink from pools and waterbodies, however, other sources such as dew and raindrops are also regularly used.

As well as drinking water for the sake of hydration butterflies often use it as a source of minerals. They can be found drinking moisture from muddy areas, or from damp sands on the edge of the beach. These water sources often have dissolved minerals in them that the butterflies benefit from. This behaviour is referred to as ‘puddling’, and it is more common in male butterflies.

But beyond the basics of nectar and water there are a number of different sources they use for moisture and minerals. Some of the food that butterflies take advantage of are rather unusual, and at times gruesome. We may not think of butterflies as being associated with piles of steaming dung or a rotting corpse, but if you go down to the woods today, or even the meadow or the beach, you may be in for a big surprise.

Flower SpeciesNectar Availability
Purple ConeflowerSummer to fall
Butterfly BushSummer to fall
ZinniaSummer to fall
LantanaSummer to fall
MilkweedSummer to fall
VerbenaSummer to fall
Table 2: Butterfly Adult Nectar Sources

Drinking SourceDescription
PuddlesButterflies often gather around muddy puddles to drink water and extract minerals. This behavior is known as “puddling.”
Moist SoilButterflies may also extract moisture and nutrients from moist soil or sand, especially after rainfall.
Wet PlantsSome butterflies drink water droplets from wet leaves, petals, or other plant surfaces.
Table 3: Butterfly Drinking Sources

Also read: Do Butterflies have Teeth? (How do They Eat?)

Do butterflies eat plants?

Hawaii’s white monarch butterfly

Butterflies only eat liquid foods, meaning that most parts of a plant are unavailable for them to feed on,. However, there are parts of plants that they do take advantage of, mostly those that are easier for the butterfly to slurp up.

Do butterflies eat nectar?

Nectar is the main food for most adult butterflies. It is created by nectaries, which can either be floral nectaries, located in the flower, or extrafloral nectaries, which are located elsewhere on the plant.

Extrafloral nectaries are usually designed to provide bribes to insects that live on the plants and provide protection from pests. They are not associated with pollination.

The floral nectaries are used to bribe insects to feed on the plant’s flowers, thus becoming covered in pollen and then spreading this between different flowerheads. Flowers are often extra sneaky in attaching this pollen to insects, by holding the nectar far back in the plant, but keeping the pollen high up, so that it has to be brushed past to get to the tasty reward.

Some flowers even inform the butterflies when they are empty of nectar, by changing colour. This prevents the butterfly from wasting its time and helps the unpollinated flowers to be visited.

Also read: Why are Bees Important to Plants? (Pollinators)

Do butterflies eat pollen?

There are very few butterflies that actually eat pollen. This is because pollen comes in a solid form that is difficult for the butterfly to consume. Most simply feed on the nectar the plant provides as a bribe for the insects visiting its flowers. The pollen then becomes attached to the butterfly and they move it onto the next flower, causing cross-pollination.

One butterfly that does eat pollen however is the Zebra longwing butterfly. This butterfly is found from Texas down to Central America and uses its saliva to liquefy the pollen before slurping it up. They appear to benefit from eating the energy-rich pollen as these butterflies live much longer than many of their compatriots.

One of the reasons why some flowers have adapted to have an elongated form is that butterflies are unlikely to eat the pollen, unlike some other insects. By making it impossible for other insects to get in and feed on the pollen it means only butterflies are able to spread it between the different flowers.

Also read: Is a Butterfly a True Bug? (Explained)

Do butterflies eat flowers?

Butterfly eating flowers

Adult butterflies do not eat flowers, though the caterpillars they come from may. Butterflies will visit flowers to drink the nectar, uncurling their long proboscis to slurp up the sweet mixture within the blooms.

Also read: What Caterpillars Turn Into Butterflies? (Species Explained)

Do butterflies eat grass?

Adult butterflies do not have the mouthparts to chew up and eat grasses. And although grasses do have flowers that produce pollen, they do not produce nectar, meaning there’s nothing for butterflies to feed on. Caterpillars of many species do eat grasses, however. Some confusion may arise when adult butterflies land on grasses to drink water droplets from the grass surface, which may appear as if they are feeding on the grass.

Do butterflies eat leaves?

Adult butterflies do not eat leaves, however, many species of butterflies spend a great deal of time around the tops of trees, as this is where they will lay their eggs. Species like the white-letter hairstreak and the purple emperor will spend time basking on leaves and flitting around the tops of trees, making it look like they are feeding on them.

Some butterflies have been known to feed on sap, liquid which oozes from broken bark in trees. Feeding on the sap can be a dangerous business, however, as many insects become trapped in the sticky liquid if not careful.

Do butterflies eat fruit?

butterfly banana

Butterflies cannot eat solid fruit, however, they do often slurp up fruit juices or flesh that has become rotten enough to be liquid. Fruit contains valuable sugars that the butterflies can benefit from.

In order to provide food for butterflies, some people put up fruit feeders, placing fruit in cages or on tables for butterflies to feed on.

Do butterflies eat bananas?

Rotten bananas, which have become very brown and soft, are beloved by many butterfly species. As the skin is too tough for butterflies to get through, as they have no teeth to bite holes with, bananas left out for butterflies are the best split or cut into to allow the insects to feed.

Do butterflies eat oranges?

Many butterfly species enjoy feeding on the juices from oranges. These could be oranges that are simply sliced up, or skins remaining after the orange is peeled. If they are skins they should be soaked in water to encourage the last of the juices to seep out. Orange skin itself is too tough for the butterflies to get through.

Do butterflies eat strawberries?

Soft fruits like strawberries are ideal for butterflies to feed on. Just like bananas, the juices are more easily accessible if the strawberries are overripe or crushed.

Do butterflies eat apples?

Apples are another favourite of butterflies. Overripe apples are particularly attractive and butterflies can be found feeding on rotting fruit that has fallen on the floor.

Do butterflies eat poop?

We may associate butterflies with beautiful blossoms but there’s a yuckier side to these enchanting insects. A surprising number of butterflies rely on poop for both moisture and a number of important minerals.

Purple emperors are magnificent butterflies, but their tastes are less than royal. Hard to spot, purple emperors spend their time at the tops of oak trees. However, enthusiastic entomologists entice these beauties to the ground by mixing up toxic smelling potions, often including dog faeces. The butterflies love it.

Even without human intervention, these butterflies drop down from the skies to feed on any old poo that’s left for them, from dog to horse.

Three species of clearwing butterflies that are found from Mexico to Argentina have a particular penchant for fresh bird droppings. They spend their time following around antbirds, who themselves spend their time following after trails of ants. The butterflies are hoping to get a sip off that fresh new faeces.

Do butterflies eat insects?

Adult butterflies do not eat insects. Firstly they simply don’t have the mouthparts to take on solid matter, secondly, it would be difficult for a butterfly to capture and subdue another living animal given their lack of ways to attack another animal.

Butterflies have occasionally been spotted feeding on the dead bodies of insects, slurping up their gooey innards. However, larger mammals often offer more in terms of salty liquids for the butterflies to enjoy.

Do butterflies eat bugs?

Many people use the terms insects and bugs interchangeably, however, technically true bugs are a subgroup of insects with very specific characteristics. True bugs have a proboscis, similar to that of a butterfly, but much shorter and stiffer. This allows them to feed on the sap of plants, or even to suck out the insides of other insects.

Yet, just like other insects, bugs are just too much of a mouthful for butterflies, who stick to much less troublesome foods.

Do butterflies eat mosquitoes?

Mosquitoes are one of our least favourite insects, buzzing around noisily and feeding on our blood at their own convenience. Many animals feed on mosquitoes, from bats to birds to other insects like dragonflies. However, unfortunately, butterflies simply aren’t up to the job and won’t help get rid of these annoying pests.

Do butterflies eat dead animals?

As well as the horrible habit of feeding on poop many butterflies take things even further and view dead animals as a delightful feast. However, it’s not as if butterflies tear off chunks of flesh like a starving lion. Instead, it’s the rotting juices that butterflies suck up, like hungry vampires.

Do butterflies eat dead bodies?

Butterflies feed on dead bodies of many different species, in particular in order to get a kick of sodium. Dead fish, deer and snakes have all been seen with butterflies feeding on their juices. Technically the bodies of humans would provide exactly the same nutrition for these butterflies. However, as most human bodies are buried or cremated there is less opportunity for butterflies to take advantage of our inherent saltiness.

Also read: Here’s How and What a Butterfly Eat in The Winter

How do butterflies eat?

Butterflies eat and drink through the use of the same appendage, the proboscis. The proboscis is a long thin tube made up of two halves that are zipped together after the butterfly emerges from its cocoon in its adult form.

When not in use the proboscis is curled up like a hose. They use this amazing appendage like a giant straw to suck up their food. Different butterflies tend to have different length proboscis, with the length often being adapted to the wealth of the flowers they feed on.

When do butterflies eat?

Butterflies are usually only active during the day and throughout warmer days and seasons. In the winter many butterfly species die off, and those that don’t will enter diapause, a type of hibernation.

Butterflies will eat regularly, many times throughout the day, whenever sources of food are available to them. Some species don’t eat at all, however, as adults. These butterflies made sure they had their fill as caterpillars, saving up all their energy as adults to concentrate on finding a mate.

What do butterflies eat in captivity?

A number of species of butterfly do not eat as adults, having done all the eating they need as caterpillars. Others do need to feed. These can either be fed directly on fresh flowers or from nectar provided in artificial feeders.

Sugar water or diluted honey can be used as a nectar substitute. It has also been observed in butterfly houses that the butterflies may choose to alight on visitors. This is usually because they are taking advantage of the salty sweat of the visitors to top up their sodium levels.

Some butterfly rearers choose to release their butterflies once they have reached maturity, as it is far easier for the butterflies to head out and find their own food than for the keepers to provide the best possible diet.

Also read: 6 Essential Practices to Help a Dying Butterfly

How long can a butterfly live without food?

The exact length of time a butterfly can live without food is uncertain but most species can go several days at least. Some butterflies have much longer periods without feeding, such as monarch butterflies that enter diapause, similar to hibernation, during the winter, and therefore do not feed for several months.

Some butterfly species don’t eat at all as adults and emerge from the chrysalis without the mouthparts required for feeding. Most of these species will only live for a few days, at which time their sole mission is to find a mate and reproduce. It’s a risky gamble that they can achieve their life’s ambition in so short a time, but it appears to be a successful strategy.

Also read: What Caterpillars turn into Monarch Butterflies? (A List)

A butterfly picnic

We all want to do our best to encourage butterflies. These beautiful and fascinating insects provide us with a great deal of inspiration and joy. Yet while we spend a great deal of time talking about what flowers are best to plant to encourage butterflies few of us would consider filling our gardens with muddy puddles, faeces and dead animals. Quite a butterfly banquet.

Yet you can offer our friendly pollinators some of what they need, without grossing yourself out. Here are a few options for giving butterflies a helping hand.

  • Provide a little water: Fill a shallow tray with water and place stones in it for the butterflies to alight on. This can be particularly vital where there aren’t other natural forms of water.
  • Create a pond with muddy banks: This might not be for everyone but water features with shallow boggy or muddy banks can be ideal for butterflies to practice their puddling. If you don’t fancy open water you can always create a bog garden, where water is retained to keep the ground damp, but not enough to make open water.
  • Get fruity: Most kinds of fruit appeal to butterflies if they aren’t too dry. You can either offer fresh fruit to your butterflies or give them old and mouldy fruits you don’t have any use for. Rinds and leftovers are also welcome, though you will have to place them in a little water to draw out the liquids. Also, remember that pests like rodents may take an interest in such a feast, so place them somewhere out of reach of other animals. Placing them in a sunny location can help attract the butterflies.
  • Don’t be too tidy: Now this may take a special kind of person, perhaps with a larger garden. If possible leaving animal dropping, and even small animal carcasses, to degrade naturally, can provide food not only for butterflies but a host of other species. While this might not be acceptable outside your back door, if you have a large garden there may be corners you have left to go wild. If you do decide to leave things be you’ll be surprised how quickly these unpleasant offerings will disappear. Nature is a great recycler.
  • Don’t forget the flowers: While all these extras are great, flowers are the number one food for our butterflies. Nectar is incredibly important to keeping our butterflies going, however, not all flowers are equal in the eyes of a butterfly. Firstly it’s important to note that some butterflies will only feed on very specific plant species. The small blue butterfly, for example, feeds only on kidney vetch. Other butterflies are generalists and will feed on whatever comes to hand. Therefore the most beneficial thing is to have a wide variety of native plants available so that both the specialists and generalists can get a taste. Many non-native garden plants can also provide food for butterflies but while they benefit the generalists they are unlikely to benefit the specialists. Here are a few plants that butterflies love;
  • Marjoram
  • Scabious
  • Hemp agrimony
  • Bird’s-foot trefoil
  • Butterfly weed
  • Purple coneflower
  • New England Aster

So the good news is there’s plenty you can offer to hungry butterflies flitting their way through the countryside. Admittedly some of the dishes are rather disgusting, but still there’s the more traditional fair to provide as well.

Also read: Creating a DIY Butterfly Garden (A List of Must-Haves)


Katie Piercy

Katie Piercy, a conservation industry veteran with a diverse career, has worked in various environments and with different animals for over a decade. In the UK, she reared and released corncrake chicks, chased hen harriers, and restored peatland. She has also gained international experience, counting macaws in Peru, surveying freshwater springs in Germany, and raising kiwi chicks in New Zealand.

Meadows have always captivated her, and she has often provided advice and assistance in managing these habitats. From surveying snake's head fritillary in Wiltshire to monitoring butterfly species in Norfolk, Katie's dedication extends even to her own front garden, where she has created a mini meadow to support wild bees and other pollinators.

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