Butterflies are some of the most colourful & beautiful creatures in the UK. I have never met anyone who doesn’t like butterflies, yet we have not been taking care of them & their numbers & variety are in decline. Their habitats have been destroyed & they struggle to find food & homes. You may think that they are not that important — they only live a day or two — but that is wrong, they are a really important part of our ecosystems & we must look after them. There are lots of things you can do to help butterflies in your garden and give nature the home it needs.
Why are butterflies important?
All creatures are important. Our ecosystems have developed over billions of years and within them species have found homes, niches and unique ways of living to create an interdependent web of life. Butterflies are therefore important as a part of our wonderful ecosystem. I really feel though that somehow we have elevated them above lots of other creatures. There’s something magical about butterflies which is why they appear in fairy tales, they are used as metaphors (when was the last time you had them in your stomach?) and their life cycle is the basis of a number of parables & tales. Our culture has lots of references to these ‘flying flowers’. Instinctively we all know they are incredible, they teach us important lessons. We need to protect them for their sake & ours.
There are four stages in the life of a butterfly; eggs, larva (caterpillar), pupa/chrysalis & finally the adult butterfly. In each of these stages the creature is a source of food for other animals & insects they are an important part of the food chain. For example, a blue tit chick can eat one hundred caterpillars each day. This may sound greedy but this is a vital food source for a growing bird. Butterflies lay lots of eggs, some of those get eaten, some of the caterpillars get eaten but in the end some butterflies emerge from the pupa to breed again. It is a beautiful & vital cycle. Areas with lots of butterflies also tend to be rich in other invertebrates. Together these populations provide pest control and they are pollinators.
Why cant butterflies look after themselves?
You may wonder why butterflies are in decline. Since 1976 there has been a decline in occurance of 70% (The State of UK Butterflies Report, 2015)Why do they need our help? The answer is fairly simple, we have destroyed their habitats with farming, building & pollution. There are many more humans alive that at any other time in history and we all need somewhere to live, food to eat and space to bring up our next generations. There is space for us to do this alongside nature, we just have to be careful to include it in our lives. Our gardens can become ecosystems, we can plant food, make spaces for animals, insects and birds to breed and give them shelter for their young.
Creating a wildlife friendly garden
Creating a garden which is a haven for wildlife is easier than you might think. For one thing there are lots of you can stop doing. Stop tidying & mowing, keep some of the ‘weeds’ and wild plants. Don’t clear up all the dead leaves and twigs at the end of the year, they provide places for hibernation, pile them up. Only cut hedges in the winter as birds may be nesting in them in summer.
As well as leaving wild areas you can add insect hotels, nest boxes, shelters for hedgehogs and ponds or bird baths to provide water. Make corridors so that small animals can get around under cover.
Plant wild flowers, grasses, sunflowers and thistles to provide nectar for butterflies and bees and seeds for birds. Provide variety with open areas, closed areas, flowers, long grass, short grass, shade and sunshine.
Products for butterflies
There are a number of things you can do specifically for butterflies. Firstly you could see what butterflies are generally living in your area and find out what types of plant they need. Then think about providing plants which will give the butterflies nectar to eat and also plants which their caterpillars will eat. Butterflies need food through both of those parts of its life cycle. They will also lay their eggs on the plants which their caterpillars like to eat so make sure not to chop them down without checking under the leaves.
Make sure there are flowers right through the season. This may require different plants but also you can help the plants you have to keep flowering with regular deadheading and plenty of water.
Flat rocks in sunny places are a great resting place for butterflies. They like the sunshine so give them somewhere to lounge.
You could add a butterfly house. They have narrow slits through which the butterflies enter and leave and they provide shelter and a great place to undergo metamorphosis
Don’t be afraid you can’t do too much!
Wildlife needs our help all year round so don’t worry that you are leaving too much food or making too many spaces. In the last 60 years the majority of wildflower meadows have been destroyed. There could be as little as three percent of the original meadows now available for wildlife. This is a pretty disastrous statistic but there are also millions of acres of gardens. If we all play our part we can help nature thrive. In doing so we will be helping ourselves and future generations to live in a healthier, happier world.