Gardening for Butterflies and Moths

The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2022 report found that 80% of butterfly species in the UK have decreased in either their abundance or dispersal, or both their profusion and distribution, since 1976.  This statement is deeply alarming.

I spotted this pair of mating Meadow Brown Butterflies on a grassy hummock in my garden. The caterpillar food plants for Meadow Brown Butterflies are all grasses and include Bents (Agrostis), Cock’s-foot (Dactylis glomerata), Fescues (Festuca), and meadow grasses (Poa).

Hearing about wildlife’s decline can leave us with feelings of overwhelming sadness and helplessness, but for me it poses the question, what can we do to help butterflies?  I’m here to share simple yet incredibly effective ways in which you can help reverse the decline of our UK butterflies.  New research undertaken by Butterfly Conservation scientists, Dr Lisbeth Hordley and Dr Richard Fox has shown that the simple act of allowing areas of grass in urban gardens to be left uncut can increase butterfly numbers by up to 93% and attracts a wider range of species.

Our gardens can form a network of stepping stones that form safe pathways from one garden to another.  Gardens can connect and link together gardens, meadows, and grasslands; allowing butterflies safe passages to find food, shelter, potential mates, and caterpillar food plants.  Butterflies need places where they can lay their eggs safely without risk of butterflies, eggs, caterpillars, or cocoons being chopped up by a lawn mower or strimmer!

Two Marbled White Butterflies (Melanargia galathea) flying in amongst the grasses.

If every garden left just one, two or three grassy tussocks, where the grasses are left to grow long and are never mown, this would provide a safe food source for butterfly and moth caterpillars.  Caterpillars favoured grasses include Bents (Agrostis), Cock’s-foot (Dactylis glomerata), Fescues (Festuca), Common Couch (Elytrigia repens), Yorkshire-fog (Holcus lanatus), and meadow grasses (Poa).

Small Heath Butterflies (Coenonympha pamphilus) are delightful. These butterflies tend to fly low, skimming the surface of the grass, they positively sparkle in the sunshine in grassy areas. Small Heath caterpillars all feast upon grasses, including Bents (Agrostis spp.), Fescues (Festuca spp.) and meadow grasses (Poa).
I took this picture of an Essex Skipper (Thymelicus lineola) from the front to show how sweet this butterfly is – isn’t it cute? This butterfly is feasting on Hawkbit nectar. Essex Skipper caterpillars feed on Cock’s-foot (Dactylis glomerata), Creeping Soft-grass (Holcus mollis), Common Couch Grass (Elytrigia repens), Timothy (Phleum pratense), Meadow Foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis), False Brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum), and Tor-grass (Brachypodium pinnatum).
Here’s a side view of an Essex Skipper (Thymelicus lineola). This butterfly is pictured on a beautiful red clover flower (Trifolium pratense).
Red Fescue (Festuca rubra), Sheep’s-fescue (Festuca ovina), Yorkshire-fog (Holcus lanatus), and Tor-grass (Brachypodium pinnatum) are the caterpillar food plants for the Marbled White Butterfly.
The caterpillar food plants for Gatekeeper Butterflies include Bents (Agrostis), Common Couch (Elytrigia repens), Fescues (Festuca) and meadow grasses (Poa). This Gatekeeper Butterfly is feasting upon Oregano flowers.
Ringlet Butterflies (Aphantopus hyperantus). Ringlet caterpillars feed on a range of coarser grasses, including Cock’s-foot (Dactylis glomerata), False Brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum), Tufted Hair-grass (Deschampsia cespitosa), Common Couch Grass (Elytrigia repens), and meadow-grasses (Poa).
This Speckled Wood Butterfly (Pararge aegeria) is pictured resting on Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) in my garden. The caterpillar food plants for Speckled Wood Butterflies include Cock’s-foot (Dactylis glomerata), Common Couch (Elytrigia repens), False Brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum), and Yorkshire-fog (Holcus lanatus).
I took this picture of a Marbled White Butterfly feasting upon blackberry nectar in my garden. Brambles (Rubus fruticosus) are wonderful plants for wildlife, their flowers sustain bees and butterflies, their blackberries feed dormice, voles, as well as badgers, and birds. Plus, the caterpillars of Grizzled Skipper, Green Hairstreak, and Holly Blue Butterflies, Buff Arches Moths, Peach Blossom Moths, Brown-tail Moths, Common Footman Moths, and other moth caterpillars eat this plant’s leaves.

Brambles (Rubus fruticosus) produce large quantities of pollen and nectar for a wide variety of butterflies, moths, bees, and other insects to feast upon.  In addition, Brambles are one of the food plants for the caterpillars of Green Hairstreak and Grizzled Skipper Butterflies, and a number of moths, including the exquisitely beautiful Peach Blossom and Buff Arches Moths.

This is the Peach Blossom Moth (Thyatira batis). The caterpillars of this stunning moth feed on Brambles (Rubus fruticosus). Having a patch of Brambles in your garden is very beneficial for wildlife. There are a number of caterpillars that feed on Brambles; the flowers provide nectar and pollen for moths, butterflies, bees, hoverflies, and other pollinating insects, and the fruit are a delicious reward for us to eat. Blackberries are also eaten by birds, voles, mice, and badgers. Brambles create shelter for wildlife, and safe spaces for birds and hedgehogs to nest.
The Buff Arches Moth (Habrosyne pyritoides) is an amazing looking moth. I see these moths quite often in my garden; whenever I spot a Buff Arches Moth, I notice their resemblance to flint stone! Buff Arches moths are found across the UK, wherever their caterpillar food plants (Rubus fruticosus – also known as brambles) are growing you’ll find these fascinating insects.

Please don’t allow any pesticides, insecticides, or herbicides to be used on your garden, allotment, or indeed on any area in your locality, as these products obliterate our bees, butterflies, and moths.  There’s no need to spray aphids and blackfly if you see them on your plants; these insects are a vital source of food for birds, ladybirds, beetles, lacewing and hoverfly larvae.

Snowdrops (Galanthus) provide a food source for over-wintering and early flying butterflies like Brimstones, Peacocks, Commas, and Red Admirals that awaken on warm, sunny winter days.  Look out for dormant snowdrop bulbs on sale in July and August.  I usually prefer to grow snowdrops from dormant bulbs rather than plants sold ‘in the green’, as dormant bulbs are easy to post and plant, and the snowdrops often establish better.  Due to their diminutive size, snowdrop bulbs rapidly dry out and desiccate after they’re dug up from the ground; they don’t survive for long once they have been lifted.  Therefore, snap snowdrop bulbs up as soon as they’re available and plant them right away.

I took this photograph on a bright and sunny day in February. This Red Admiral Butterfly spent a considerable amount of time feasting upon the nectar from snowdrop (Galanthus) flowers.
If you’re looking to identify a butterfly you don’t always see butterflies with their wings open – so here’s a picture of a Marbled White Butterfly with its wings closed.

Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count runs from 12th July 2024 until 4th August 2024.  Visit Butterfly Conservation’s website for all the details and a useful butterfly identification guide.

A Large Skipper Butterfly (Ochlodes sylvanus) pictured resting on Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum). The caterpillars of the Large Skipper Butterflies feed on Cock’s-foot (Dactylis glomerata), Purple Moor-grass (Molinia caerulea), and False Brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum).

For more articles about growing caterpillar food plants, please click here.

To see more articles about growing plants for pollinators, please click here.

For gardening advice for July, please click here.

To see my guide to creating a meadow, please click here.

To see all of my Big Butterfly Counts for Butterfly Conservation, please click here.

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