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Why attract butterflies & moths?

If you take steps to encourage butterflies and moths into your garden, you will end up with a double bonus: colourful butterflies and moths , and a beautiful garden. You will also be helping to compensate for the loss of habitat in the countryside. Many butterfly and moth species have declined in number, and gardens can provide valuable alternative sites for feeding, and, with the right plants, for breeding.

Butterfly feeding needs

Butterflies: Sugary sources of energy, like nectar, from a variety of sources.
Eggs: Need to be laid on larval foodplant
Caterpillars: Eat only from their specific foodplant

Nectar sources for butterflies

Butterflies can fly surprisingly long distances in their search for the right breeding site. Nectar provides essential sustenance in this phase. Butterflies locate nectar flowers by following scent and colour.

Generally, both native and non-native flowers are suitable as nectar sources for butterflies. What is important is that the nectar should be accessible – simple, shallow flowers are best. Butterflies cannot reach the nectar in deep flowers (e.g. foxgloves). You should also be wary of double flowers, as many of these are sterile, scentless, and do not have any nectar.

You can group flowers to create a ‘butterfly border’. The ideal location for such a border is in a sheltered, sunny spot. When planning what to plant, it is important to ensure that there will be flowers in spring and autumn, as well as the summer. The following list is not comprehensive, but should be a helpful guide to seasonal nectar.

  • Spring. Aubretia, bluebell, bugle, celandine, crocus, cuckooflower, daisy, forget-me-not, grape hyacinth, heather, hedge mustard, honesty, hyssop, primrose, pussy willow, red deadnettle, violet, yellow alyssum, yellow archangel.

  • Summer. Many flowers, especially, bramble, Buddleia (butterfly bush), candytuft, dandelion, floss flower, golden rod, heliotrope, hemp agrimony, knapweed, lavender, marigolds, marjoram, mint, nasturtiums, oxeye daisy, purple loosestrife, scabious, sweet rocket, sweet william, teasel, thyme, toadflax, valerian and yarrow.

  • Autumn. Black-eyed Susan, Buddleia (deadhead to prolong season), hebe, heliotrope, ice plant (but not ‘autumn joy’ or ‘brilliant’), ivy, michaelmas daisy, scabious, tobacco plant and yarrow.

Butterflies will also feed on ripe and windfall fruit, root sap, tree trunks, honeydew, sweat, carrion, dung, cuckoo spit, and even wine! You could also put out sugar strips, or a shallow dish of sugared water and honey. If you live near the coast, this will be popular with migrants.

Persuading butterflies to breed in your garden

Butterfly caterpillars are very fussy about what plants they will eat. So you will need to provide the right host plants. It is very important that they have a pesticide-free environment, and it helps if the host plants are positioned in a sunny place.

The stinging nettle will attract five colourful species of butterfly (see table). Stinging nettles need nutrient-rich soil and should be cut back in June or July, to stimulate new shoots to grow, providing more food for caterpillars. Check there are no caterpillars on the stems you remove. Growing flowers in an existing nettle bed is a simple way to create a butterfly border.

You can encourage even more species by having a butterfly meadow. You will get most variety by having three different lengths of grass.

  • Very short turf, with bird’s foot trefoil.
  • Shortish turf with thyme, cuckooflower, clovers and primrose.
  • A summer meadow, with a mix of long, medium and short grasses, and knapweeds, oxeye daisy, marigolds, scabious and clover. Cut the meadow twice a year to 5 cm, in June and the autumn. Leave the cuttings for two days, then rake them up. Leave some areas uncut, and vary the mown and unmown sections in different years.

Overwintering sites

Some species of butterfly will hibernate during the winter months to emerge in the spring. Species such as small tortoiseshells, commas, peacock, brimstone and some red admirals overwinter as adults, while several blues and browns survive in chrysalis form. Those butterflies that overwinter in the UK need shelter, either natural or manmade. They need somewhere cool and dry, for example garden sheds, outhouses or garages. Wooden fences (made with untreated wood) are useful, as are wall crevices. For natural shelter, ivy and woodpiles are ideal.

Leaving some areas of long grass and seedheads will give essential sites for grass-feeding butterflies.

Other useful websites

Butterfly Conservation

Copyright Sussex Wildlife Trust May 2010

WildCall Factsheet disclaimer: All information contained within Sussex Wildlife Trust WildCall factsheets is to the best of our knowledge true and accurate at the time of printing. The Sussex Wildlife Trust will not accept any responsibility or liability for any losses or damage resulting from following the advice given.

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