Where have all the butterflies gone?

2016 has been a very poor year for butterflies, but I must try to help those that are on the wing

Peacock butterfly caterpillars on nettlesBack in June, I spied a mass of peacock butterfly (Aglais io) larvae on a clump of nettles by the roadside. They were black and spiky and there were hundreds of them, all chewing away on the nettle leaves, lifting their heads now and then as if to look around at each other. 

They were fascinating to watch and I anticipated the pleasure of seeing them browsing the flowers in nearby gardens. As adults, they should have been at their peak in August, but I saw only the occasional specimen flying and wondered what had become of that big clump of larvae. Did they not pupate successfully? All was in place for them, so what happened? 

A red admiral butterfly enjoys a Rudbeckia flowerWhile there have been glimpses of loveliness – the delight of seeing a group of ringlets (Aphantopus hyperantus) dancing through the dappled sunlight of a small woodland for example – my butterfly sightings have stayed low all the summer and it was only halfway through September that larger-than-usual numbers of red admirals began to show themselves.
They surprised me with their sudden appearance, browsing ivy flowers along the tops of walls and enjoying the last of the Rudbeckia flowers. Others, though, have been few and far between.

Where are the butterflies this year? The butterfly organisation, Butterfly Conservation, organised a Big Butterfly Count and found that numbers are indeed way down, with peacock sightings down 42% on 2015 and the tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) down by 47%. That is a precipitous drop, and numbers are down across most species. The reason is said to be the weather – a mild winter, followed by a cold spring and a warm, damp and relatively sunless summer. 

There is nothing gardeners can do about the vagaries of the British weather but acknowledge the frustrations it generates, but I can think more about what I plant. There is a good list here and I shall be looking at more plants with clusters of small flowers – more Nepeta, Scabiosa, Verbena and Lavender, all of them lovely and with long flowering seasons. I'm hoping that the small flowers will not only be easily accessible to the butterflies and other pollinators, but also that it will be less likely that their pollen will be washed out, and the nectar diluted, by rain. Where space allows more marjoram, thyme and Linaria will be seeded into the sunny corners  of the gravel courtyard, where it can do what it wants. 

Gardeners don't tend to give up easily and those who garden especially for wildlife will no doubt be keen to improve the lot of the small beings who visit the flowers we grow, be they butterflies, bees, hoverflies or wasps. Even more flowers it is, then. Can you have too many flowers? The more the merrier it seems to me. 


Find out more

Butterflies in the Glasshouse - RHS Garden Wisley
Join the RHS and enter this competition to win a special visit to this annual event

How to encourage butterflies
RHS advice on bringing more of these beautiful creatures to your own garden

Encourage moths to your garden
Moths can be as beautiful as butterflies

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