Use That Overripe Fruit to Attract Butterflies

Did you forget about that slice of watermelon sitting in the back of the fridge? You’ve been ignoring it because throwing away food makes you feel guilty, and you’re hoping that the refrigerator fairies will carry it away.

However, that dumpsterish odor is making this approach more and more difficult.

Mourning Cloak feeding on overripe orange.
Mourning Cloak feeding on overripe orange.

Good news! You can take your overripe fruit and put it to an environmentally beneficial use. That’s because many species of butterflies, including Monarchs, will feed on fruit that is past its prime.

We discovered this recently when we found butterflies feeding on oranges that had been left out for the Baltimore Orioles for a few too many days. Orioles do like oranges, but they prefer fresh.

The butterflies we saw were Mourning Cloaks and Commas. Neither are rare or among the more beautiful of the Lepidoptera, but nor are they often seen in our garden. These days I am pleased to see any butterfly.

Comma butterfly. It gets the name from the little white mark on the lower left part of the wing, which arguably look like a comma.
Comma butterfly. It gets the name from the little white mark on the lower left part of the wing, which arguably look like a comma.

The host plants for Comma caterpillars are all members of the elm and nettle families, according to Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA).

There are many Elm trees in the neighborhood, though they are mostly either Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) or hybrids – the American Elm (Ulmus americana) having become very rare. Apparently the non-native Elms can still serve as hosts for the Mourning Cloaks.

Hosts for the Comma include Willows, Cottonwoods, and Hackberries. There’s a huge Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) across the alley from us, a Western Hackberry (Celtis occidentalus)  in the front parkway, and a huge Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica) across the street.

Commas are found only in North America, while the range of Mourning Cloaks extends into the temperate parts of Eurasia.

If you are stumped by a butterfly, moth, or caterpillar ID in North America, you can submit a snapshot to BAMONA and they will get back to you with a positive identification. You do need to set up a free account, but all the IDs go into a database that helps to monitor population trends. Is that a great resource or what?

In addition to oranges, butterflies are fond of apples, cantaloupe, and watermelon. The fruit needs to be sliced open so that there is easy access to the juices. For more information on attracting butterflies with fruit, click on this link.

Seen many butterflies in your garden so far this year?

39 Comments on “Use That Overripe Fruit to Attract Butterflies”

  1. Great tip. Glad you’re seeing and encouraging butterflies–they were scarce last year around here. Today I saw an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and one I think is Cabbage White (Pieris rapae). If I get some good pictures I’ll try out the new resource you mentioned.

  2. I usually find commas in my “compost” (it’s really just a huge pile that grows larger each passing year) each spring. There are elms in my neighborhood but not certain which kind – in fact I grew a sapling from my neighbor’s tree. I love these butterflies with their “camouflage” that then surprises when they open their wings. I am patiently waiting for Monarchs – please? I have seen many Swallowtails. I remember touring a garden through our local club here and on their woodpile were quite a bit of watermelon rind – to attract hummingbirds! I would think the hummers were attracted to the fruit flies and not the fruit.

  3. Interesting tip Jason! I have got a lot of butterflies at the moment, mostly small tortoiseshells and the occasional skipper. Nowhere near as many as last year, but I think they are just later than normal due to the odd weather patterns we have had.

  4. Really interesting post Jason, followed your link ‘attracting fruit’, and see they suggest putting the fruit in a dish within another dish of water to prevent ants. Also like your link to BAMONA, the layout of information is very organised. In the UK there is an expected mass influx of Painted Ladies, with apparently millions of these Butterflies winging over from Africa. I am going to try fruit, to see if I can attract any here. Like you we seem to getting less Butterflies every year.

  5. We practice this and found it to be successful, although we do have to change out the fruit rather frequently especially in our heat. It makes its way from our kitchen to the butterfly dish and then to the compost pile. In the fall we cut up our jack-o-lanterns for the butterflies and other wildlife to devour.

  6. I find that they particularly enjoy rotten bananas, especially the Question Marks. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any lately so they may be heading further north. 🙂 I did get some pictures of some Mourning Cloaks feeding on bananas, though, so they may still be here. Great post! AND pictures!

  7. That is awesome!! I will try this for sure with the beans!! Thank you for passing this along! And we have had many butterflies this year! No monarchs yet but I’m still keeping my fingers crossed as my milkweed is booming! I actually held my finger out and a swallowtail landed on it! It had been circling us for a while….just a magical experience! Happy gardening friend! Nicole

  8. That’s so interesting! I always learn things from reading your blog. I’ve seen those yellow ones and the small tiny ones that look kind of like monarchs. Isn’t my knowledge of butterfly names impressive? 😉

  9. I always put out of date fruit out too, here, nothing, neither bird nor butterfly will eat oranges or melon, but of course they are not native so sadly go to waste. Sam will eat both though, food is food to a dog! Love your butterflies, plain or colourful, always nice to see wildlife that isn’t native

  10. I do that too. But the squirrels seem to have developed a sweet tooth and have been making off with my fruit, even the grape jelly in the orange rinds. The local Butterfly Conservancy always has fruit out for the butterflies. It is fun to go there and see all the butterflies up close.

  11. Jason, I had a butterfly farm and nature center when I lived in Austin, We used rotten fruit on a regular basis in our butterfly house. We found that rotten bananas, watermelon, cantaloupe, and oranges all work very well. Love having those butterflies around!

  12. I’ve just spotted this old post of yours. Do you know, it’s never occurred to me to put out old fruit for butterflies? I tend to think of them only drinking nectar from flowers. We do have a lot of butterflies here, but equally there is usually some fruit we haven’t eaten in time, and now I know what to do with it. Brilliant, thanks!

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