Butterflies desperately need our help. According to Butterfly Conservation, 80% of the UK’s butterflies have declined since the 1970s.
These beautiful insects react very quickly to changes in their environment. This makes them excellent biodiversity indicators, with butterfly declines being an early warning sign for other possible wildlife losses.
Surveys showed, for example, that the summer droughts and heatwaves of 1976 and 1995 took a real toll on many butterfly species. Last year’s heatwaves – when much of the UK saw record-breaking temperatures of around 40 degrees Celsius – had similar devastating consequences. Prolonged cold, wet weather can also impact butterfly and moth populations.
We need to do all we to help butterflies and other pollinating insects – and growing nectar-rich plants is one easy way to support them. With careful planting and managing, gardens and community green spaces can be vital havens for these much-loved insects.
Nectar is a sugar-rich liquid produced by plants. It provides butterflies and moths with the energy they need to fly and find a mate. In spring, it helps butterflies refuel after winter hibernation or a long, hard journey to Britain from Africa or southern Europe. And in autumn, nectar helps butterflies and moths to build up their energy reserves so they have the best chance of surviving hibernation or the journey back to warmer climes.
Creating a nectar-rich butterfly garden can be done without spending too much money. Packets of annual seeds are cheap to buy and easy to grow – with the added bonus that many are self-seeding, so will provide years of colourful, nectar-rich blooms. Try calendula, candytuft, alyssum, cornflower and sweet William.
For completely free butterfly-friendly blooms, allow dandelions and other native plants to grow in a wild corner. Try leaving an area of grass to grow long, and see which wildflowers emerge – bumblebees, as well as butterflies, will appreciate this sort of habitat.
Try to include a range of different plants to provide a continuous source of nectar through the year – this will attract different butterfly species too. And butterflies like warmth, so choose a sunny, sheltered spot for your nectar-rich plants.
Remember that baby butterflies and moths – aka caterpillars – need to eat too. Good caterpillar food plants include hawthorn, holly, nettles, nasturtiums and ragwort.
Don’t use pesticides – they kill butterflies, bees and many other beneficial insects. And in autumn, avoid cutting back climbing plants such as ivy – butterflies often use habitats like this to shelter in over winter.
Blooms for butterflies – a few suggestions
Verbena bonariensis has stems up to a metre tall, supporting heads of lilac-purple flowers that bloom from August to October. These plants look great at the back of the border, and are easy to grow from seed.
Lavender is a familiar cottage garden plant, with fragrant flowers. It’s drought tolerant, and thrives in a sunny, sheltered position in well-drained soil. It’s loved by bumblebees, as well as butterflies.
Perennial wallflowers – also known as erysimum Bowles Mauve – produce a profusion of sweet-scented purple flowers all through the spring and summer. They are easy to grow, and will grow well in full sun or light shade.
Sedum – sometimes called stonecrop – is another drought-tolerant plant. It’s a hardy, reliable perennial that begins flowering in late summer, and continues to bloom all the way through autumn. Left in situ, the flower heads make an attractive feature in the winter garden. Sedums are virtually maintenance free, so are an easy way to provide late nectar for bees and butterflies. There are lots of varieties available – try sedum 'Autumn Joy' or sedum spectabile 'Brilliant'.
Buddleia is often called the ‘butterfly bush’ because it’s a magnet for many different butterfly species. Different varieties will flower in pink, red, purple, or white, and bloom throughout July and August.
Buddleia needs to be grown with caution, though – it can become invasive and so needs careful management if grown in gardens. To prevent seed development, and the risk of unwanted spreading, cut the plants back hard as soon as the flowers have faded.
A good alternative to buddleia – and needing less management – is hebe. Also fantastic for attracting butterflies, hebes are available in a range of sizes and colours, including compact varieties that can be grown in a pot.
For nectar early in the year – especially important for butterflies emerging from hibernation – grow winter aconite and grape hyacinths.
Help for moths
Moths are affected by the same problems that can lead to the decline of butterflies: habitat loss and extreme weather being the main culprits.
There are around 2,500 species of moth in the UK. Although most moths fly at night, there are more than 100 day-flying moth species in this country – more species than British butterflies. Look out for fascinating humming-bird hawk moths, bright red cinnabar moths, or vibrant six-spot burnets.
For night-flying moths, grow night-scented blooms such as honeysuckle, jasmine, night-scented stock and tobacco plant.
A butterfly in the house?
As winter approaches you may find a tortoiseshell or peacock butterfly inside. These two species will sometimes find cool, sheltered spots in our homes in late summer or early autumn, and enter their winter dormant stage.
But as the weather gets colder and the central heating goes on, the butterflies can wake up – higher temperatures in the house make them think that spring has arrived. This isn’t great, as the outside temperatures will be too cold for them, and there will very few nectar-rich plants available for them to feed on.
If you spot an early-rising butterfly in your home between now and spring, here is some advice from Butterfly Conservation (www.butterfly-conservation.org).
Catch the butterfly carefully and place it in a cardboard box or similar. Put the box somewhere cool for half an hour or so to see if the butterfly will settle. Once calmed down, you might be able to gently encourage the sleepy butterfly out onto the wall or ceiling of an unheated room or building such as a shed, porch or garage – just remember that the butterfly will need to be able to escape when it awakens in early spring.