How to Rear Butterflies in Dry Climates

This article will show how to keep butterflies as pets and how to rear them in dry climates.

This is a subject that one of the school of bugs readers has requested and we thought it would be a cool subject to investigate.

So keep reading and you’ll learn how to rear and keep butterflies in dry and hot climates….

Can Butterflies Survive in Desert Conditions?

When we think butterflies, we usually think of a pleasant day, greenery and flowers – with a flash of iridescent color as the wings of the insect flutter in the sunlight.

Building butterfly houses and habitats has become a popular pastime among homeowners with enough backyard and gardening space to create such an environment.

It’s easy to figure things out when you live in a warm, humid climate with plenty of sunlight, but what are some do’s and don’ts when you live in a more extreme environment? 

First Things First – Butterflies are Hardy Creatures

According to the Smithsonian Institute, there are some 17,500 species of butterflies in the world, out of which about 750 are found in the United States.

Butterflies and caterpillars (immature larvae that eat plants voraciously and finally transform into their adult forms) are literally everywhere, found in every climate condition and ecosystems with the possible exception of Antarctica

The point is, butterflies survive in many climates. One of the ways they protect themselves from extreme cold is to migrate.

The Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is known for its annual migration from upper parts of North America to overwintering sites – Monarchs from the Eastern North America travel to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico, while those from Western North America travel to California.

In the process, some travel over 3000 miles!

The Monarchs, like the one above, have garnered most of the fame, and rightfully so.

But many other North American species – including the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), the Purple Wing (Eunica monima), the Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae), the Little Sulphur (Eurema lisa), the Buckeye (Juonia coenia) and the Great Southern White (Ascia monuste) all migrate hundreds of miles to avoid the cold.

Painted Lady Purple Wing

What do Butterflies Need in order to Survive and Thrive?

In order to build a sustainable butterfly habitat, it is important to understand what butterflies need, and like, in natural settings, and what are the things that will put them at risk.

Sunlight and Warmth, not Extreme Cold

Butterflies cannot survive without sunlight and warmth. Temperatures between 800 to 1000F (26.50 to 37.50C) are ideal for them. They are cold blooded creatures, the sight of butterflies sunning themselves is common.

They cannot even get the energy to lift off and fly unless they have warmed up enough. This is why the cold is unbearable for them, especially if the temperature falls below 410F (50C). On the other hand, most desert conditions, as long as the temperature does not get astronomically high, and the insect can find some shade and a source of moisture to keep hydrated.

Flat Rock Surfaces

Butterflies like flat rocks, both out in the sunlight where they can sun themselves, and in the shade – to rest on during the hottest parts of the days.

Rocks are slow to pick up heat, and then retain the warmth, making them ideal resting spots for butterflies.


In extreme hot and dry weather, butterflies seek shade – the sun is hot enough for them to be warmed up quickly and they don’t want to dehydrate or overexpose themselves.

Sources of Water and Humidity

Butterflies tend to dehydrate if they can’t find water bodies (or other sources of water), damp soil and/or trees which they can derive moisture from.

Flowering (Nectar) Plants

Adult butterflies feed on a number of nectar-producing plants. Some plants, such as Lantana and Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii) will attract all species of butterflies, while others, such as the Milkweeds (Aspecias) and Gregg’s Mistflower (Conoclinium greggii) will attract specific types of butterflies, such as the Monarch and the Queen.

Caterpillar Feeding (Larval) Plants

Female butterflies will look for a suitable plant on which to lay their eggs. Larval plants are those that provide plenty of food for the caterpillar to munch on as it mutates and finally grows into an adult butterfly.

Overripe Fruits

Some species of butterflies such as the Empress Leilia are attracted to rotting fruit, rather than flowers.

If you’re enjoying this article and want to know more about butterflies then here’s some hand picked articles to read:

The Color of Butterflies – Explained

Butterflies and Sugar Water: The Complete Guide

Which Butterflies Hibernate?

Which Butterflies Are Poisonous? The Complete Answer!

Windbreaks and Cover from Torrential Rains

Butterflies can be frail in terms of protection from really strong winds or torrential rains. Damage to their wings can be fatal.

In terrain where such conditions prevail, butterflies need cover behind trees, shrubbery, caves or similar refuge.

Protracted cold, rain and/or wind, with no shelter, will create a deadly cycle for butterflies – they will have no energy without warmth and sunlight, and their ability to move about will be severely impeded.

Given the above, how can you build a sustainable butterfly habitat in a typical US desert climate? Let’s examine two specific examples.


As an illustration, let’s consider two desert-like areas in the Western United States – Central Washington State (east of the Cascade Mountains) in the north and the plains of the State of Arizona in the Southwest.

A Comparison of the Climates

Besides being dry, there are differences in the two areas. Central Washington State and Arizona, which is captured in the table below.

Specific ConditionsArizonaCentral Washington
GeneralDesert climate, sunny, dry, hot in summer, cold in winterBlend between coastal and continental (300 days of sunshine)
High TemperaturesGets over 1100F consistentlyBetween 1000 to 1100F
Rainfall13 inches on average7 to 9 inches
Natural Topography &Features, WindsAZ is open country, and winds can ply across the open plains. It is not known for tornado activity but can be windy.The Cascade Mountains create a windbreak, but there are natural wind tunnels in certain places making them very windy.

As we can see from the table above, temperatures in both areas are warm enough for butterflies.

The temperature range in Central Washington is ideal, while AZ might get a bit too hot at the height of summer (June-August typically).

Both areas enjoy sparse rainfall, though Central Washington receives more than AZ. Winds can be a factor in wide open spaces.

The main considerations that springs out at us is the need for shades and windbreaks to protect butterfly habitats, ensuring that there are both Nectar and Caterpillar Food Plants, and finally figuring out ways in which to help the butterflies stay hydrated.

The heat is not a problem and will be welcomed as long as there is shade and there are sources of hydration.


Given the above, here are some tips to build a proper butterfly habitat:

Do Your Research

It is fairly easy to find out the hundreds of species of butterflies that have been spotted in your greater region, as well as your immediate area.

Use that information, cross tabulated against the types of Butterfly Nectar and Caterpillar Food plants that can be easily found and nurtured in your climate.

One of the best ways to entice butterflies to your garden/habitat is to ensure that both adults and caterpillars have ready access to the proper food sources.

For example, butterfly species found in AZ include:

Monarchs, Queen, Empress, Leilia, Giant Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail, Pipevine Swallowtail, Texas Crescent, Gulf Fritillary, Variegated Fritillary, Blue, Sulphur Orange and Dainty Sulphur.

Species of butterflies found in WA include:

Western Tiger Swallowtail, Checkerspot, Blue Copper, Anise Swallowtail, Various Whites, Sara Orangetip, Checkerspots, Crescents, Green and Hoary Commas, Mourning Cloaks, Viceroys, Monarchs (though the population is dwindling), Brown Elfin and Spring Azure.

Plant Masses of Butterfly Nectar and Caterpillar Food Plants

To ensure that both adults and caterpillars get adequate food (and having done your research about the types of butterflies that frequent your area), choose plants that bloom at different times of the year.

If you live in a hot climate, you could potentially get butterflies visiting even during your winter months.

The table below, for AZ, provides an example of the types of plants you should look to plant and nurture. Unless marked, many of the caterpillar food plants also provide nectar.


Nectar PlantsTypes of ButterfliesCaterpillar Food PlantsTypes of Butterflies
Lemmon’s MarigoldManyFlame Acanthus Elada; Arizona Checkerspot
Red Bird of ParadiseManySouthwestern Pipevine (no nectar)Pipevine Swallowtail
Autumn SageManyMexican HoneysuckleTexas Crescent
LantanaManyPassion FruitGulf Fritillary; Variegated Fritillary
Desert ZinniaManyMilkweeds (Desert, Climbing, Pineneedle etc.)Queen; Monarch
Gregg’s MistflowerQueen; Monarch malesCitrus (Mandarin, Tangerine etc.)Giant Swallowtail
Willow RagwortManyBlue Fairy DusterBlue 

Desert Senna (no nectar)Sulphur & Sleepy Orange

The next table, for Washington State overall, contains a number of species that are found in Central Washington, showing plants that supply nectar and feel caterpillars.


PlantsTypes of Butterflies
Wild BuckwheatBlues, Coppers, Hairstreaks, Mormon Metalmark
SilvercrownWestern Tiger Swallowtail
LupineBlues and Sulphurs
Pearly EverlastingCheckerspot
StonecropBlue Copper
Desert ParsleyAnise Swallowtail
AsterSeveral Checkerspots and Crescents
MustardsMost Whites, Sara Orangetip
WillowsMourning Cloak, Viceroy, Western Tiger Swallowtail
ServiceberryTwo-Tailed Swallowtail
CurrantsGreen and Hoary Comma
CeanothusCalifornia Tortoiseshell, Pale Swallowtail, Brown Elfin, Spring Azure

Blue Copper Butterfly on Stonecrop  Western Tiger Swallowtail on Silvercrown

Hang Pieces of Overripe Fruit

As mentioned above, certain species of butterflies do not drink nectar but eat rotting fruit.

Provide Shade; Place Butterfly Houses in the Shade

During the hottest parts of the day, butterflies will want to rest in the shade. Provide tree cover where possible.

If you have a butterfly house, place it in a location that ideally receives sun for part of the day but is in the shade during the hottest part of the day.

If that is not possible, place it in a partially shady area with diffused sunlight. Place the house away from prevailing winds and/or areas where it would be exposed to rain.

The house should be put on a pole or tree about 4 feet off the ground, with water troughs outside.

Even if in full or partial shade, the summers will be hot enough for the butterflies to maintain body temperature, and they can go out and sun themselves as necessary on plants and rocks. Hang a couple of tree barks inside as perches for your guests.

If you’re enjoying this article and want to know more about butterflies then here’s some hand picked articles to read:

Can Butterflies See Color? Let’s Find Out

The Color of Caterpillars – Green, Yellow, Black, Blue and More!

The Color of Butterflies – Explained

Provide Water Sources

It may not be possible to maintain garden pools in the extreme heat of summer, so make sure that there are troughs and open cans with water in and around the butterfly house and at strategic locations around the habitat – for example, hung from trees or in bushes, or on poles in open areas.

Maintain Damp Patches of Soil

Supply damp patches of soil, keeping them nutrient rich and water once or twice a day depending on how fast they dry out. Flower beds will suffice in this regard.

Furnish windbreaks

There are different landscaping styles you can use, e.g., place tree and taller bushes or plants in the direction that wind currents typically come from, placing lower plants and flowering beds behind those barriers and wind breaks.

Place the lowest plants towards furthest away from the direction of the wind – perhaps close to your house. This will have the dual benefit of another solid windbreak, as well as attracting butterflies close to your porch and windows.

Place Flat Rocks in the Sun and the Shade, Away from Strong Winds

These surfaces are vital for butterflies, as discussed. Rocks should be placed in a way that they get sunlight in the early morning and late evening hours.

Butterflies are probably going to be in the shade during the hottest parts of the days. Rocks should not be placed in places exposed to strong, buffeting winds.

Reduce Pesticide Use

Using pesticides in the garden will harm butterflies. Use natural methods of bug removal or spray them off with water.

The latter method has the advantage of hydrating the plants, thus providing a means to the butterflies to hydrate themselves.

In Conclusion …

Utilizing the tips above and targeting the species that are abundant in your area are critical to being able to maintain a habitat where butterflies, moths and hummingbirds visit.

One important detail to remember is that while you may not like heat, butterflies thrive in it.

As long as they get plenty of food and are able to hydrate themselves, and get some shade and relief from high winds, they will thrive and give you the pleasure of a job well done – not to mention brilliant colors flitting about in the sun.

Steve Foster

Mad about bugs and wanting to publish as many articles as I can to help educate people about these amazing beautiful creatures! For more info check out my about page

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