Butterflies in the garden

Every caterpillar is an ugly duckling about to transform into a beautiful swan. Caterpillars turn into butterflies or moths and can add beauty, movement and magic to your garden. Butterflies add a whole new dimension to the garden. Their elegant beauty and ephemeral presence lifts the whole garden as they flit around the borders like animated fairies, alighting on flowers and adding their own beautiful essence.

Sadly, just like many other native pollinators, butterflies are in crisis, with their numbers vastly reduced and many under threat of extinction. There are around 50 native butterfly species in Britain and another 30 or so that arrive in the summer from mostly Europe.

Red Admiral
Red Admiral. Image: Martin Mulchinock

Butterflies tend to need very specific host plants to complete their life cycles. These are the plants that they lay their eggs on. The plants go on to provide an essential food source for the developing caterpillars and this is where they can cause alarm to gardeners. A mass of caterpillars munching on a plant does not necessarily pose a problem to the rest of your garden. One or two caterpillar species can wreak havoc on some garden plants. The caterpillars of the large white and small white butterfly and the cabbage moth can munch their way through the foliage of brassicas and also other plants such as nasturtiums, but they won’t eat other garden plants. Likewise caterpillars on nettles and other wild plants are unlikely to feast on your garden beauties. Try and identify the caterpillar and learn about the species that has chosen your garden as a safe haven rather than killing everything in sight.

Identify caterpillars

Common Blue
Common Blue. Image: Martin Mulchinock

Buy a good guide to butterflies and learn how to identify different species, or visit a specialist website such as Butterfly Conservation. Take an interest in their lifecycle and what the adults look like. While the caterpillars can be quite weird looking or even ugly they pupate into the most beautiful creatures that will enhance your garden and delight children and adults alike. If you find caterpillars munching on your plants, find out what they will grow into by identifying them online.

The UK Butterflies website has a great caterpillar ID page to help you find out what your caterpillars will grow into. Don’t reach for the spray gun. A few munched leaves are unlikely to kill your plants and that ugly caterpillar could be the larval stage of something wonderful. Engage with them, watch them and allow nature to create a balance. Take photographs of them and make a record of what plants they visit and when. Get the kids involved and make a fun project out of it.

Comma butterfly. Image: Martin Mulchinock

Five things to do to attract butterflies to your garden

  1. Grow nectar rich garden plants to provide food for these precious insects. Choose open single flowers, or flowers that have several nectar rich tubular flowers, where the nectaries are exposed for easy access such as purple coneflowers, buddleja, verbena, red valerian (Centranthus), Eryngium, Scabious and ice plants (Sedum spectabile).
  2. Leave part of your garden wild, complete with weed species and preferably in a sunny spot to provide host plants for butterfly eggs and larvae. For example several butterfly species lay their eggs on stinging nettles and need the plants to feed their caterpillars.
  3. Don’t panic when you find caterpillars on your plants. Take time to identify what they are and if they are a problem, for example large whites on your cabbages, sacrifice a plant or two at the ends of the rows and then pick off any affected leaves. Inspect regularly as often eggs are laid or hatch in succession.
  4. Stop using insect killing pesticides in your garden. These toxic chemicals kill good and bad insects and will kill butterflies, bees, lacewings and many more beneficial insects too. They are not intelligent and cannot differentiate between what you intended to kill and what visits your garden and flowers. Learn to live with a few pests and let nature take the strain. The natural balance will gradually restore if you allow it to.
  5. Plant a meadow or use a ready planted wildflower mat that is free from pesticides such as MeadowMat. This is like turf, but made up of native wildflowers and grasses, already growing in a matrix, ready to lay on prepared and leveled soil. This can replace a small lawn or transform a garden slope into a wildflower rich area that will provide food and host plants for a range of species.

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