December: The Red Admiral Butterfly


December features the Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) and its favorite flower Echinacea (echinacea purpurea)

Birds and insects are pollinators; more than 80 percent of land plants are pollinated by animals like butterflies. Butterflies love nectar, a sugary fluid made by flowering plants to attract pollinators to flowers. Pollen sticks to the bodies of pollinators when they feed on nectar. Bright colors, showy petals, and smells that mimic mating butterflies or other pollinators are ways that flowers evolved to attract specific birds or insects. 

Healthy ecosystems with native plants help attract pollinators like butterflies. For example, the mature Red Admiral butterfly is attracted to Echinacea/Purple coneflower because of its color and nectar-filled blooms. The blooms are flat and wide, which make good landing pads for the Red Admiral butterflies. The Red Admiral can easily access nectar due to the curved shape of the coneflower’s center. When choosing plants for gardens or landscaping, consider local plants to keep the ecosystem thriving. Native plants produce food for other insects, birds, animals – even humans –  and encourage pollination. Without plant pollination, we would not have delicious foods like coffee or chocolate! 

Friends of High School Park has a butterfly garden filled with native plants to attract pollinators. It’s active with local pollinators from spring to fall. Friends of High School Park also hosts a native plant sale in June, and is a great way to start or add to the natural habitat in your yard.

Fascinating Facts:

  • Butterflies have specific host plants on which they lay their eggs. The underside of the leaf of a stinging nettle plant is a safe place for the Red Admirals to lay their eggs. Caterpillars will hatch and use the stinging nettle for food which makes them poisonous to predators.As the Red Admiral grows, it prefers the coneflower plant.
  • The red stripe on the Red Admiral wings is a sign to predators that they are poisonous. Sometimes, especially in the female, the red band of the forewing bears a small white spot in the middle.
  • Red Admiral butterflies have massive migrating abilities and travel between the north and the south in the United States. One complete life cycle from egg to adult is called a brood. One brood occurs March-October in the north and another brood from October-March in the south.
  • Red Admiral butterflies are found on every continent but Antarctica. 
  • Adult Red Admiral butterflies do not eat; they only drink. Adult Red Admirals are attracted to wet things like tree sap, rotting fruit, bird droppings, wet soil and plant nectar. As they drink, they ingest water, minerals and electrolytes.
  • Male Red Admirals are very territorial and will protect mating areas with tenacity. If you see two Red Admiral butterflies in a small area, they are likely having a battle over a female. However, Red Admirals are friendly toward humans – they may even land on you! Remember not to touch their wings or you may remove their colorful scales, making the butterfly susceptible to predators.
  • Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) have been bred into more than 100 cultivars. Be aware before purchasing or planting that some of these varieties may not have accessible nectar or may be harming the environment. 
  • Purple coneflowers thrive in full to partial sun. Plants need at least four hours of sunlight per day. The plants grow naturally along the edges of woodlands, so plant them in spots with morning shade and afternoon sun or vice versa.
  • Echinacea offers a bargain for its small size- it’s beautiful to observe and also attracts pollinators. The goldfinch is a pollinator found in High School Park and they love to eat the Echinacea seeds. Also taking echinacea supplements might reduce your chances of catching a cold. 

Click the link to enter December’s drawing for a butterfly coloring book and colored pencils!

KIDS COLORING PAGE ACTIVITY:  Coloring Page Download here 

If you are interested in attracting butterflies to your garden, here is a link to butterfly larval host plants in Pennsylvania: 

If you are traveling to national parks, here is a link to butterfly checklists in US National Forests:

Here is a close up video view of the Red Admiral:,vid:qFLaYWd4ykw,st:0

Purple coneflower video:

Purple Cone flower

To learn more about butterfly life cycles: