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Whether you call them butterworts or pinguicula, these plants are among the most well known bug eating plants out there. Yes, butterworts trap and eat bugs, but the question is why, and second, how do they do it? Those will be answered in this guide. If you want to grow any butterworts, knowing their habits is essential.
Pinguicula leaves are covered with a glistening substance called mucus which attracts insects. These carnivorous plants eat bugs to increase their nutrients and to grow faster, produce more traps and be more resistant to diseases.
How Butterworts Attract Bugs
If you look closely at butterworts you will see their leaves have a shimmery appearance. This is the mucilage – or mucus- which lures bugs and also serves as a trap.
The leaves of a pinguicula have special glands that secrete this mucus. It looks a bit like water droplets, which is probably why insects are fixated on it. The mucus is also sticky and powerful enough to hold small insects down. A fly caught in the mucus for instance, will have a hard time getting out of it.
The substance butterworts produce are comprised of various sticky adhesives. They are not harmful to humans in any way but to small insects, it is the perfect trap.
If you grow sundews, the way butterworts catch bugs will be quite familiar. There are some slight variations depending on the species but in general pinguicula use the same approach for all prey. Butterworts use this same process to eat other foods. So if you feed your plant Downtown Pet Supply Dried Mealworms for instance, this is also how they will digest it. Minus the struggle of course since the worms are not alive.
Since butterworts cannot hunt prey they have to lure them. Mucus serves as the bait since insects are drawn to its water-like surface. The mucus also contains digestive enzymes which the plant will use to eat its prey.
If a bug makes contact with the mucus, it will trigger the penducular glands in the pinguicula. These glands will release more mucus and digestive enzymes.
The mucus entraps the bug and as it struggles, will set off additional glands. The more a bug tries to escape, the more mucus is released.
As the bug is slowly dissolved, bits of nitrogen come out. This signals to the pinguicula to release more enzymes to get as much of this nitrogen as possible.
Luring prey is straightforward but the digestive process is complex. This could also take a while to complete depending on the insect size and how healthy the pinguicula plant is.
Why Do Butterworts Catch and Eat Insects?
Carnivorous plants come in different shapes and forms, but they all share something in common: they benefit from nutrients. Butterworts do not necessarily need nutrients to live, but they are healthier with it.
Butterworts grow in highly acidic, nutrition poor soil. Their only sources of nutrition are the bugs around them, which is why these plants developed traps.
While butterworts are carnivorous ,they do share traits with other plants. They produce glucose and can survive off it. All plants need is sunlight and they will be food sufficient.
However, glucose only provides basic fuel for plants to live. For a pinguicula to really thrive and reach its maximum potential, they require nitrogen. Non-carnivorous plants obtain nutrients from the soil, but butterworts cannot since as they grow on poor grounds.
By eating insects, butterworts can meet their nutritional requirements. This has proven so effective these carnivorous plants will not grow in fertilized soil. In fact it will be fatal to them.
Of course we do not need to know all the details of why butterworts eat bugs to enjoy them. You can just lave a pinguicula outdoors and you will see bugs caught up in its leaves soon enough.
It is not only fascinating but also beneficial to people. Take fungus gnats for example. They are real pests but with a pinguicula, you can get rid of them, at the same time provide nutrients for your plant.
But knowing why your butterworts like to eat bugs makes caring easier. You now know why these plants cannot grow in rich soil and why feeding is important.
If your pinguicula catches a lot of bugs, that is a good sign. It means the plant is producing mucus and gets plenty of nutrition. Add glucose and your plant is in real good shape.
Are Butterworts Good Insect Controllers?
Butterworts are among the best natural insect controllers you can use. These plants eat flies, gnats, ants and other insects without any assistance required. If you have several butterworts at home, insect infestation will not be a problem.
You may have seen videos or pictures of pinguicula leaves covered with bugs. That can really happen especially during spring and summer. A lot of bugs abound during this time so do not be shocked if you see a bunch of them.
Of course if you have a bug infestation, it is best to find the source. Butterworts, as efficient as they are in drawing bugs, cannot provide a permanent solution to this problem.
One question that comes up is, can too many insects harm butterworts? Could the plant end up eating too many of these bugs? This is an important matter we need to address.
Can Butterworts be Overfed?
An adult pinguicula will have no problems handling several bugs. If the plant is large enough and needs the nutrients, it will eat as many of the bugs as it can.
Eating bugs requires producing more digestive enzymes. However butterworts are willing to use more resources because they will get nutrients in return.
If you have baby butterworts, they are probably not capable of eating multiple bugs. You can give a young pinguicula bits of freeze dried mealworms instead. As the plant grows, it will produce additional mucus and attract more bugs.
While butterworts are a good way to get rid of insects, you should also look for the reasons why they keep coming back. Some bugs are just more active during certain times of the year, so if that is the case, you can place butterworts around your garden to get rid of them.
How to Keep Butterworts Healthy
A strong, healthy pinguicula secretes mucus consistently all over its leaves. The only way your plant can keep this is up is if it is healthy. Here are some suggestions on what you can do.
- Pinguicula needs sunlight just like other plants. Most Mexican varieties prefer partial and direct sunlight. Full sunlight is fine as long as it is under 85 F. Some pinguicula variants have greater tolerance for heat, others less, so check first.
- Butterworts prefer the soil so be moist during its growth period. But during winter, keep the soil bone dry or only lightly wet. After winter ends, slowly increase the moistness in the soil.
- Tropical butterworts turn into non-carnivorous succulent plants in winter. They do not die like other plants, but they cannot eat bugs. This is called the dry dormancy or succulent phase. After winter ends, its carnivorous leaves will slowly grow back.
- If your plant is already attracting bugs, do not give it any more food. You should only give nutrients to a young pinguicula or if the plant is unable to catch prey. If your plant is a Deco Glass Terrarium for instance, you have to give it food every two to three weeks.
- Fish food and freeze dried worms are good choices but do not give hamburger or human food to these plants.
Environment plays a huge role in pinguicula health. The best approach is to recreate its natural environment so that the plant does not have to do much adjusting. Butterworts can suffer from shock when suddenly moved to a new location, causing it to stop eating until it gets used to the new environment.
You can speed up this process by making its new home as similar to its natural habitat as possible. In general, pinguicula grows in warm, humid places. Under these conditions, your butterworts will have an easier time making mucus and catching bugs.
People grow butterworts for many reasons, but for most the biggest attraction is their ability to catch and eat bugs. It is not only fascinating to watch but for many of us bothered by flies and gnats, also very useful.
My fascination with carnivorous plants began many, many years ago with Venus Fly Traps. Now I am more than happy to impart what I know with other enthusiasts and those who are curious about meat eating plants.