Small White feeding on flower. Credit Andrew Bladon

Gardening for butterflies

Matt Hayes, Research Assistant writes:

Matthew Hayes, portrait photograph

Whilst everyone is being asked to stay at home it’s important that we continue to look outside and engage with the natural world. To help with this, we are going to be blogging about wildlife you can see from your window or in your garden.

This set of posts will look at different groups of common butterflies as well as some historical species that have been lost or suffered declines. Here we have put together some tips on how to support butterflies where you live.

Caterpillar foodplants

Peacock caterpillars. Credit Ed Turner

If you want to support specific species of butterfly one of the best things you can do is grow foodplants for their caterpillars to eat. Take a look at the other posts on garden butterflies to see suggested plants for different groups.

Click here for a full list of UK butterfly foodplants

Nectar sources

To support all kinds of adult butterfly, as well as many other insects, you can grow flowering plants and provide them with a source of nectar. Adding nearly any flowering plant to your garden will help provide butterflies and other pollinators with a much-needed energy boost, but something to strive for is having at least one flower in bloom all year round, from March through to November. This means that no matter when a butterfly visits your garden, it can find a source of food. Spring flying species will be able to regain energy reserves after a long winter dormancy and those on the wing in autumn will be able to stock up before hunkering down once again.

Small Tortoiseshell on flowers. Credit Ed Turner
Small Tortoiseshell on flowers. Credit Ed Turner

A few spring flowering species like primroses and bluebells, followed by clover and lavender in Summer and finishing with late flowering rudbeckias and Verbena bonariensis (the purple top), are amongst those suggested by the Wildlife Trusts to produce a year-round display. To help encourage slightly different germination times for plants of the same species, you can sow seeds for them on multiple occasions, a few weeks apart.

Alternatively for perennials, you can cut sections back before flowering, delaying blooming by a few weeks and extending the flowering season. These methods should help provide nectar sources and brighten up your garden for even longer.

If you do not have much space or access to a garden, that is not a problem. Climbers such as honeysuckle can make use of a bare wall and a few flowering plants in a window box can still make the world of difference to a visiting butterfly.

A full list of suitable flowering plants, with their flowering times, is available from Butterfly Conservation.

Wildflower Meadow

Wildflower patch. credit S Steele
Wildflower patch. Credit S Steele

If you have space, planting a small wildflower meadow and leaving an area to grow taller can be a great way to bring some variety to your garden, whilst also providing caterpillar foodplants and sources of nectar. You can seed the meadow with variety of wildflowers (including sorrel and trefoil) and grasses (such as bents and fescues). 

A step by step guide to producing your own wildflower meadow is available from The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

As well as providing information on how to set up the meadow, it also has details on when it should be cut in order to maintain wildflowers for future seasons. One key thing to remember is that you should rotate when you cut back your meadow, and if possible you should not cut back the entire meadow at once. Remember, different species will use the plants at different times of the year, so it is best to leave a section as a refuge.

Rotating when the cutting takes place should also help prevent any one species from dominating the others. It may be necessary to do ‘weeding’ to stop thistles and nettles completely taking over but these plants are really important to lots of species, so make sure there is space elsewhere in your garden for a good patch of them.

Click here for a list of native UK wildflower suppliers

Sun, shelter and refuges

Speckled wood sunning on leaf. Credit Andrew Bladon
Speckled wood. Credit Andrew Bladon

Keeping your garden varied is a good way to support different species of butterfly and attract more wildlife in general. It is best to avoid all sides of your garden being surrounded by bare fences, with nothing but short grass or patio in between. Planting a combination of different plants of varying sizes will help your garden gain structural complexity, give rise to a wider array of habitats and in turn support more species.

Butterflies, like other insects, are ectothermic. They have to warm up using heat from the sun before they can start flying around in search of food and a mate. This means they love sunny sheltered locations, where they can bask free from the disturbance of strong winds. Planting native trees, bushes or a hedgerow can help provide this shelter and you can use species such as hawthorn and buckthorn to provide nectar or food for caterpillars at the same time. Sunny sheltered locations are also some of the best places to grow flowering plants as this will allow butterflies to feed more easily.

Small Tortoiseshell feeding on flower. Credit Ed Turner
Small tortoiseshell. Credit Ed Turner

A simple rule to follow when trying to improve your garden for wildlife is to not tidy up too much. Try to avoid clearing away species often considered ‘weeds’ such as nettles. A sunny nettle patch will provide food for many of our largest butterflies and provide a safe haven for many more creatures.

Leaving grass to grow longer and leaf litter to build up can also provide important sheltering locations for species that overwinter as caterpillars and pupae. If you do want to tidy up tufts of grass or leaf litter, wait until spring and the first butterflies are on the wing, so that overwintering species have had a chance to emerge.

Avoid pesticides

Although it is tempting to use pesticides to control pest insects, these can do more harm than good. Pesticides will kill butterflies as well as the natural predators of ‘pests’, which allows ‘pest’ numbers to quickly bounce back. It is better to maintain a varied garden with wide variety of habitats that will keep populations of natural predators high and any ‘pests’ in check.

Overwintering adults

When temperatures start to drop, species like peacocks and small tortoiseshells will search for sheltered locations where they can overwinter.

Wildlife garden. Credit Ed Turner
Wildlife garden. Credit Ed Turner

During this time, they may well make their way into your house and if you do find one inside approaching Christmas, it is best to relocate it to a different sheltered spot. This will stop your central heating waking up the butterfly too early but also stop the butterfly being exposed to the elements and perishing outside. Suitable locations include sheds, garages and log piles. The butterflies should have easy access flying in and out so that they do not get trapped when they emerge in spring. So long as you do not disturb them, a fun winter activity can be searching these locations to try and locate the roosting butterflies.

For more detailed information on gardening for butterflies and wildlife in general please see:

Butterfly Conservation (website)

The Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire (website)

For more detailed information on the butterflies of the British Isles please see:

Butterfly Conservation (website)

UK Butterflies (website)

The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland (Book):

Lewington, R & Thomas, J (2014). The Butterflies of Britain & Ireland. New Revised Edition. Oxford: British Wildlife Publishing Ltd.

The Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund is run by the Museums Association, funding projects that develop collections to achieve social impact.

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