Gardening for Butterflies

It’s that time of year again where we head out into gardens and green spaces to spend 15 minutes observing butterflies and sending our findings to Butterfly Conservation… that’s right, it’s The Big Butterfly Count.

This year marks the 10th year of this citizen science project. Data sent in by you via their handy app feeds into long term monitoring of our British butterflies. Why is monitoring butterflies so important? Not only are they under threat and been suffering large scale declines since the 1970s, butterflies tend to react to environmental changes ahead of other species, making them brilliant indicators of upcoming environmental threats such as climate change.

As well as taking part in the Big Butterfly Count, you can help these winged beauties (and their nocturnal cousins) by making your garden lepidoptera friendly! Read on to find out ways you can garden for our British butterflies!

Ringlets copulating (Aphantopus hyperantus)

Larval Food Plants

Moths and butterflies start off life in a larval stage as a caterpillar. Adult butterflies will lay their eggs on plants which the larvae will enjoy eating and this can vary between species. Some butterflies such as the gatekeeper Pyronia tithonus, meadow brown Maniola jurtina, small heath Coenonympha pamphilus, speckled wood Pararge aegeria, large skipper Ochlodes sylvanus and wall Lasiommata megera, will lay their eggs on grasses including such as the bents Agrostis spp., Fescues Festuca spp., cocksfoot Dactylus glomerata and false brome Brachypodium sylvatica. This is why leaving your grass to grow long can be so beneficial.

The herbaceous bird’s foot trefoil Lotus corniculata is enjoyed by the larvae of the common blue Polyommatus icarus, green hairstreak Callophrys rubi and dingy skipper Erynnis tages, whilst both the green-veined white Pieris napi and the orange tip Anthocharis cardamines larvae will feed from garlic mustard Allaria petiolata.

Male orange tip

Many of the British butterflies belonging to the Nymphalinae family including the Comma Polygonia c-album, peacock Aglais io, red admiral Vanessa atalanta, small tortoiseshell Aglais urticae and painted lady Vanessa cardui all use nettle Urtica diocia as their larval food plant.

Some butterflies will lay their eggs on more than one plant, whereas others are more specialist such as the common blue Polyommatus icarus, who’s larvae only feed on kidney vetch Anthyllis vulneraria, and it’s these specialist butterflies which are more at risk of habitat loss. By planting native British species in your garden you can help to extend their habitat and give them a better chance of survival. – but remember, you will only attract the butterflies in your area, for example, planting milk-parsley Peucedanum palustre is unlikely to attract a swallowtail unless you live on the Norfolk Broads.

Nectar Rich Flowers

As adults many butterflies feed on a variety of nectar rich flowers – though some will feed on pollen, tree sap, rotting fruit and even animal dung! To encourage adult butterflies to your garden, plating flowers full of nectar is always a good start. Look for simple open flowers as many of the fussy ornamental garden plants are inaccessible to pollinators. Also beware of where you buy your plants from. Many garden centers and plant suppliers still treat plants with insecticides and introducing these plants to your garden will do more harm than good. If in doubt, ask the staff and buy from places which can give you a reassuring answer.

Some great native nectar plants are:

  • Hemp agrimony
  • purple loosestrife
  • bird’s-foot trefoil
  • oxeye daisy
  • red clover (but also other clovers)
  • ragwort (not as toxic as people think!)
  • red campion (likes shade)
  • aliums

Non-natives loved by butterflies include:

  • bowles mauve everlasting wallflower
  • sage
  • thyme
  • lavender
  • verbena
  • cat mint
  • Evening primrose (for moths)
  • Jasmine (for moths)

I haven’t added in buddleia here because whilst butterflies do enjoy it, it is thought that the nectar quality is pretty poor – it’s the equivalent of us having fast food over a home cooked organic meal. There are so many richer plants out there, if you have a choice, don’t reach for the buddleia.

I hope this has been useful. If you are already gardening for butterflies I would love to hear in the comments some of your tips and the butterflies you are attracting. Meanwhile, don’t forget to download the Big Butterfly Count app and take part between now and the 9th August!

X Larissa

Choosing Garden Plants for Pollinators; Natives or Non-natives?

This week (13th – 19th July) it is ‘Pollinator Awareness Week‘ and a perfect time to discuss the different plants that we can, as gardeners, provide for pollinators in our own little patches of green space. I’d like to to so by looking into some of the different native and non-native plants in my own garden which are often alive with the buzz of busy bees.

Why do we need to help pollinators? Pollination of our crops is an essential ecosystem service that we just can not do without and pollinators do this job for us for free. The term ‘pollinator’ covers a wide range of invertebrates including bees, butterflies, moths, flies, hoverflies and wasps. There are thought to be over 1500 different species of pollinators in the UK.

The most well known and frequently discussed group are the bees of course. There has been a lot of research over the last few years into the notable decline of bee populations with theories ranging from habitat loss, climate change and the use of neonicotinoids – a group of insecticides thought to effect bees – however, other pollinator groups are also suffering from similar environmental and anthropogenic stressors, so by adding a range of plants to suit different pollinators is in my opinion, a really good start in helping these important creatures.

Lungwort flowers early and the bees loved it this year!

Lungwort flowers early and the bees loved it this year

It has long been debated whether you need to plant native plants and have a wild and ‘weedy’ garden for wildlife or whether you can still attract wildlife with garden exotics.

Studies have found some non-natives to be useless to pollinators because the flowers are either nectar poor, too fussy for the insects to reach the pollen or the flowers are too long for the bees to get their tongues in. The RHS found in their ‘Plants for Bugs’ study that this isn’t the case for all non-natives and that some were as good as, or even better than the native plants chosen. It was at a Wildlife Gardening Forum conference a couple of years back that I heard all about this research and was swayed from being a dedicated ‘native only’ advocate to considering alternative garden plants.

The two plants that really stood out at the time were the native hemp agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum and the non-native garden plant Bowles mauve everlasting wallflower Erisimum linifolium. Both of these plants are excellent for pollinators and for me are definitely on the list of essentials for the garden. My Bowles mauve are awash with insects and also fill a space in my rockery/herb garden on my patio, providing a constant splash of colour throughout spring and summer.

Bowles mauve flowers in tall spikes which can last for the whole season

Bowles mauve flowers in tall spikes which can last for the whole season

Hemp agrimony is a native wetland plant, which is suited to damp areas such as fens or pond margins. It will however also grow in dry areas making it ideal for garden flower borders too if you don’t have a pond. I tried growing hemp agrimony by sowing seeds around my pond last year but had no success which is surprising as this plant can be invasive so be prepared to manage it if you have more luck than me. This year I planted hemp agrimony plugs around the pond but these seemed to be smothered by the other plants and I haven’t had any flower. As a last attempt, I put the final few plugs I had into a basket planter and placed at the edge of my pond. So far they haven’t died and hopefully will flower next year.

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Hemp agrimony

Another non-native plant which I think is an essential is red valerian Centranthus ruber. An introduced species now naturalised in the UK, it is great for pollinators, easy to grow and looks beautiful too.

Red valerian about to flower

Red valerian about to flower

In spring our steps are awash with bellflowers, and these attract so many bees that you can hear them buzzing all day, and they are very pretty. If you have any walls with holes in then these are perfect to fill the gaps.

I love these little flowers

I love these little flowers

My partner introduced me to cosmos; a plant he grew with a lot of success in Canada. Although we have tried for the past few years to grow them, we have never achieved the large bushes he did before. However, we have managed a few smaller plants and this year have decided to grow them in pots as the slugs just can’t seem to resist them. Neither can the bees, and if you keep deadheading them they will continue to produce flowers. When the are finished, allow a few to go to seed and collect them for next year.

This bee went from flower to flower.

This bee went from flower to flower.

When it comes to native plants, my favourites are red clover Trifolium pratense, greater birds-foot trefoil Lotus pedunculatus  and foxgloves digitalis pupurea. These are all great for pollinators and look fantastic too. For me, another important group of plants are native grasses. I leave a patch at the back of the garden to grow long for the grass-loving butterflies and by doing so, we have seen gatekeepers, meadow browns and ringlets this year. Finally, if you can provide ivy Hedra helix then the bees will be grateful of the late pollen supply, whilst the birds will be happy with the late supply of berries!

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Foxglove flowers are perfectly designed for pollinators

This is only a few of the plants we have to attract pollinators but some of my personal favourites. The RHS has done a much better job at coming up with a list of plants here. The key things to consider are to provide lots of nectar and pollen-rich plants which together, flower throughout the season offering this food supply as long as possible. Whether the plants are native or not is really up to you the gardener, as after all – it is your space too!

If you are unsure of whether the plants you are buying are good for pollinators – look for the RHS Perfect for Pollinators logo.

Ragwort – dispelling the myths

Ragwort – Senecio jacobaea is a contentious topic I’ve noticed recently. When ever a photo is posted for identification on different Facebook groups I am following, the comments show a big divide of opinion and the same myths are often used in arguing for its eradication.

For those of you who are unaware of this native plant from the asteraceae family , ragwort is often known for its toxicity to horses and cattle. Some people believe that its toxicity is to be feared and that just by touching it the plant can cause liver failure and so must be removed at all costs – and there has been plenty of media hype to continue this prejudice. However, whilst it is potentially harmful to horses, it also has plenty of benefits to wildlife.

I want to write this because when we moved in last year and the garden was overgrown, there were quite a few ragwort plants in flower around the garden and my first instinct was to go around and pull it all up. I’m glad I didn’t and that I looked into it a little bit, because I later discovered a plant with a few caterpillars of the day-flying cinnabar moth Tyria jacobaeae happily munching away at the leaves. These beautifully distinct larvae with their stripy bodies rely on ragwort as a food plant and without it these critters can not complete their life cycle. Because of the control of ragwort a decline in the numbers of cinnabar moths has been noticed.

Ragwort is also an excellent nectar source for pollinators; bees, butterflies and hoverflies in particular. We had gatekeepers Pyronia tithonus visiting our plants last year which was a new butterfly for me and very exciting. Ragwort is thought to be essential to at least 30 invertebrates, so it really is in my opinion much more of a friend than a foe. This year, I have also planted marsh ragwort Senecio aquaticus around my pond because of how great it is for invertebrates.

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Ragwort control is only really necessary if it occurs in or around a field which is producing hay. This is because ragwort is harmful to horses and they are unable to detect the dried ragwort in hay and the toxicity of the plant remains. Ingestion of dried ragwort can lead to liver failure which is understandably a very good reason to avoid it – although how dangerous it really is is debated given the difficulty in identifying ragwort poisoning as a cause of death. It is also perhaps a good idea to remove it from any grazing paddocks ‘just in case’ even though horses tend to avoid it when it is fresh. We remove it at work when the sheep graze just as a precaution, although I’ve noticed a few plants after they have arrived and the sheep have seemed to avoid them too. It is also worth noting that there is no legislation requiring the removal of ragwort as is often believed. If ragwort is causing a problem then there are powers for an order for removal to be made through the Weeds act 1959, but an order has to be made for this to be enforced.

Ragwort will not harm humans unless perhaps you eat a lot of it. I’ve pulled it up with my bare hands many times with no adverse effects. There is of course the chance that you may be more sensitive to it and for every ten people who are okay with it, there will be one who developed a rash I’m sure.

If you would like to find out more about the truth of ragwort then there is lots of information about it on the internet such as here, here and here. In the meantime, if you find any growing in your garden let it grow and keep an eye out for the cinnabar moth!

“Tyria jacobaeae-04 (xndr)” by Svdmolen – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons