Butterflies: encouraging into your garden

Butterflies are attractive insects and they give added interest to gardens when they visit flowers to feed on nectar. A few species have caterpillars that are garden pests, but most do not cause any damage in gardens.

Peacock butterfly on buddleja

Quick facts

Suitable for Encouraging butterflies by providing them with nectar sources and suitable host plants for the larval stages
Timing March to October
Difficulty Easy

What are butterflies?

Butterflies and moths are insects that form the insect order known as the Lepidoptera. There is no consistent way of telling butterflies and moths apart. Butterflies are all day-flying and belong to eight families of the Lepidoptera, most moths fly at night however there are several, often colourful, species that fly by day. Many species of moths can also be found in gardens they too can be useful pollinators and are vital parts of the food chain, although a handful can be plant pests.   They have larvae known as caterpillars that feed on the foliage and flowers of their host plants. When fully fed, they crawl away to sheltered places where they pupate and later emerge as adult butterflies or moths.

There are 59 butterfly species resident in Britain, plus up to 30 others that come here as occasional or regular migrants from elsewhere in Europe.
 
Some species require specialised habitats, such as chalk downland or coppiced woodland and so are unlikely to be seen in gardens. The species most likely to be seen in gardens are Red Admiral, Peacock, Brimstone, Painted Lady, Comma, Green-veined White, Small Tortoiseshell, Small Cabbage White and Large Cabbage White.

Only the last two are potential garden pests as they have caterpillars that feed on cabbages, other brassicas and nasturtiums.

Less frequent garden visitors are Orange-tip, Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown, Small Copper and Holly and Common Blues.

How to encourage butterflies

To see butterflies in your garden, you need to entice them with the right flowers. Adult butterflies feed on nectar that they will take from a wide variety of wild and garden flowers, particularly those growing in warm sheltered places. Butterflies can be encouraged to visit gardens by growing a range of suitable flowers from March until frosty weather ends the butterfly season in October-November.

Download

Click here for the RHS list of plants that are Perfect for Pollinators

Further information

Butterfly Conservation, Manor Yard, East Lulworth, Wareham, Dorset, BH20 5QP

Three more ways to help butterflies

  1. Leave fallen fruit under fruit trees. In late summer butterflies, such as red admiral and painted lady, will feed on fruit juices in fallen over-ripe pears, plums and apples
  2. If possible, avoid the use of pesticides, especially on or near plants that are in flower or larval food plants
  3. Plant larval food plants.  Many of the flowers listed as Perfect for Pollinators will attract the more common and mobile species of adult butterfly but most are unsuitable as food plants for the larvae. The caterpillars eat leaves and often have a narrow range of plants. With the exception of the ubiquitous cabbage white butterflies, the larval food plants are often wild plants. Not all butterflies will lay eggs and breed in gardens, even if the appropriate food plants are provided. Some butterflies, such as the fritillaries, need woodland conditions that cannot be created elsewhere. The following plants will provide food for the larvae of those species that might breed in gardens, although some butterflies tend to fly in restricted areas and will not readily colonise a new suitable habitat unless it is very close to existing butterfly colonies.
  • Alder buckthorn and purging buckthorn: Brimstone butterfly
  • Birdsfoot trefoil: Common Blue
  • Cabbage, other brassicas, nasturtium: Small and Large Cabbage Whites
  • Currants, elm, hop and willows: Comma
  • Docks and sorrels: Small Copper
  • Garlic/hedge mustard and lady’s smock: Orange-tip and Green-veined White
  • Holly and ivy: Holly Blue caterpillars eat holly flowers in late spring and ivy flowers in autumn
  • Mixed grasses grown as a meadow: Speckled Wood, The Wall, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Marbled White, Ringlet, Small Heath, Large Skipper, Small Skipper and Essex Skipper. The habitat requirements of these butterflies vary, particularly regarding the types of grass, the height of the sward and whether it is dry or damp grassland. Generally the grass should be left uncut during the growing season and scythed in the spring, leaving a good basal growth on the tussocks
  • Stinging nettle: Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma and Small Tortoiseshell. Needs to be grown in a sunny position to attract egg-laying females, preferably in large clumps. Prevent seeding by cutting down in mid-summer after the first brood of the small tortoiseshell has developed
  • Thistles (welted, creeping and giant thistles (Onopordum spp.): Painted Lady

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