Years ago, it was common to find butterflies fluttering around in gardens and meadows. Today, it’s common to almost take a step back in surprise, to experience the delight of seeing a butterfly friend resting on a flower, or sunbathing in the park.
Some of the most fascinating creatures on the planet, butterflies as you know begin their lives as caterpillars, munching on anything they can find, before turning into a chrysalis, and then magically emerging as (as Robert H Heinlein) described a ‘self-propelled flower’. We have around 50 or so native species to England (plus Painted Lady and Clouded Yellow butterflies, which migrate to England each year). Butterflies don’t live long, but their numbers have severely declined due to loss of habitat, pesticides and climate change. So let’s see how we can help them.
grow a butterfly-friendly garden
Just like any wildlife, gardening organically (avoid peat compost as it’s home to some endangered butterflies) and ‘leaving gardens messy’ with fallen leaves etc helps. Leave windows ajar in spring for butterflies to escape if caught in homes. Butterflies adore buddleia (‘butterfly bush) and lavender.
Some butterfly-friendly flowers like marjoram and wallflowers are toxic to pets, as is fallen fruit (natural cyanide). Learn how to make gardens safe for pets (includes indoor plants to avoid). Avoid facing indoor foliage to gardens, to help stop birds flying into windows.
provide sunny sheltered spots (and a little water)
Butterflies need to absorb sun to flourish and rest, but also need shady places, to overheating. They drink water, but ensure areas are shallow to prevent drowning (also helps bees). The best idea is a small saucer with a little water, with a few stones for them to rest on. Leave windows ajar in spring for butterflies to escape if caught in homes.
are moths related to butterflies?
Yes. Both species are in the same insect order called Lepidoptera. One of the only differences is taht butterflies fly during the day and moths flying during the night (and all are just as beautiful and helpful to pollination). Those big hairy bright orange ‘hairy’ caterpillars you see everywhere usually only are around for a few weeks and if they survive, soon transform into moths that fly away.
Most moths are harmless, the only ones that may cause you issues are clothes moths (two species that eat animal fibres like wool, feather and fur). So if you only wear cotton, hemp or linen clothes, your wardrobes won’t get mothballs. To reduce the risk, deep-clean and vacuum any place where you store clothes (ideally in sealed vacuum bags). Don’t use red cedar balls (used to deter, they won’t stop present infestations) near pets, as it’s toxic to animal friends.
keep away from oak processionary moths
These accidentally came to England from mainland Europe, and have a protein that can cause allergic reactions and breathing difficulties. Keep humans and pets away from these grey/white caterpillars (which can detach hairs even in spent nests and on the ground) and contact a doctor or vet if in contact with them. Cordon off infested oak trees from livestock and horses (oak/yew trees are toxic to horses anyway). Mostly found in the London area in spring/summer, and report any you see to your council and Treealert.
beautiful books about butterflies (and moths)
The Little Book of Butterflies is an essential guide to all species found in the British Isles. Learn to know your commas from your clouded yellows, and your meadow browns from your marsh fritillaries. This beautiful book features spreads on over 45 British and European butterflies, including where each one is found, biological information and what the caterpillars eat. It also gives simple explanations of a butterfly’s lifecycle and shows how these beautiful creatures are vital indicators of our ecosystems (plus measures we can take for their survival).
The Magnificent Book of Butterflies & Moths meets 36 butterflies and moths in this beautifully illustrated reference book. From flower-filled meadows and dusky woodlands to steamy rainforests, learn about the delicate glasswing butterfly and the mighty Hercules moth. Spot the orange oakleaf butterfly as it folds up its wings (to look like an autumn leaf) and marvel at the prickly spines of the tiger moth (woolly bear) caterpillar. A full-page map shows where each butterfly or moth is found.