Out My Backdoor: Puddle Parties

Butterfly puddle party. (Terry W. Johnson)

By Terry W. Johnson

We enjoy all sorts of parties. There are pool parties, birthday parties, retirement parties, Christmas parties, office parties … the list goes on. However, there is one party you will never be invited to – the puddle party.

Before you get your feelings hurt, let me explain why you will never find this invitation in your mailbox. The reason is simple: Mother Nature’s exclusive guest list to these special events is limited to butterflies.

However, she doesn’t invite just any butterfly to these gatherings. Most of the partygoers are swallowtails, sulphurs and red-spotted purples. Since the sulphur butterflies are often the most abundant butterflies found at puddle parties they are sometimes called “the mud-puddle gang.” However, the short list of invitees often includes other butterflies such as the eastern tailed-blue, harvester and American snout.

Amazingly, an estimated 95 percent of the attendees are males. In addition, since the majority of the guests are young males, these gatherings are often referred to as bachelor parties.

Puddle parties are held in a variety of places. You might find one being staged on your driveway, or in the middle of a country road after an afternoon shower. Other parties are held along exposed sandbars or the muddy margins of ponds or puddles slowly shrinking away on a hot summer day.

Puddle parties vary widely in size. Some attract only a handful of butterflies while others draw a hundred or more. Some of the butterflies in attendance are obviously drinking water. However, since these gossamer-winged beauties don’t like to get their delicate feet wet, they typically arrange themselves along the edge of the water, sipping with their long coiled mouthparts. In other cases, the butterflies will dip their long proboscises into the mud or sand and not the water.

Although butterflies’ need for water explains why many attend these drinking parties, there appears to be another reason why butterflies gather at spots where puddle parties are held. Entomologists believe these insects are also drawn to dissolved minerals such as sodium that are concentrated at these locations. In fact, the butterflies may be drinking the water in order to obtain the chemicals. It is theorized that the reason males and not females most often engage in puddling is that the nutritional demands of mating tax the males more than the females. If this is true, some theorize it’s because males loose significant amounts of sodium and other salts during mating and must replenish these chemicals before they mate again. Others suggest that the young males need the chemicals taken in at puddle parties to help regulate their body temperature.

Summer and fall are ideal times to look for a puddle party; however, butterflies will visit puddling spots during the spring, also.

If you stumble across one, one of the first things you will notice is that, for some reason, the butterflies taking part in the drinking bout will allow you to approach much closer than usual. This offers a great opportunity to view and photograph butterflies that otherwise take flight long before you can focus your camera or binoculars.

The biggest party I’ve seen was made up almost exclusively of sleepy oranges and cloudless sulphurs. This party was held around a muddy puddle in a farm road that cut through a large field. I was amazed to see so many butterflies packed into such a small area. After cautiously stalking up on the group, the butterflies suddenly exploded into the air, quickly forming a yellow and orange cloud alive with hundreds of stunningly beautiful insects. The sight was breathtaking.

As I stepped back, the cloud slowly lost its shape as the butterflies fluttered back to the edge of the dirty brown water and resumed their drinking.

If you want to improve your chances of witnessing a puddle party, you might want to provide a place for butterflies to stage a puddle party in your backyard. If this appeals to you, there are two options. You can buy a device designed to attract butterflies for a puddle party or build your own.

There are a number of commercial puddlers on the market. They are basically nothing more than a shallow basin. Sand and a small amount of rock salt and water are placed in the basin. After the water evaporates, the salt-laced moist sand becomes an ideal place for puddling butterflies to congregate.

If you want to make your own puddling spot, the best locations are near a flower bed. Some folks place their puddling spot in a butterfly garden. I am not fond of this practice for the simple reason that if a heavy rain or even normal watering results in the puddler overflowing, salt-laden water could easily spread and potentially kill nearby plants. Consequently, I recommend putting puddling spots near but not in a garden.

Next, buy a shallow birdbath or large container and position it on or flush with the ground. Fill the container with builders or play sand. Mix a small amount of plain salt with the sand and moisten it. Do not let the sand completely dry out. Keep the sand moist by adding water as needed.

I hope you have the good fortune of finding a puddle party in the next few months. If you do, keep in mind this is one party that you can’t crash. Simply stand back and enjoy the colorful spectacle.

Terry Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, a backyard wildlife expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group of the Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column. Contact rick.lavender@dnr.ga.gov.) Learn more about TERN, The Environmental Resources Network at http://tern.homestead.com.