We’re all a flutter this summer

RSPB’s Morwenna Alldis talks about the importance of giving butterflies a home in our gardens this summer and reveals the best food plants for butterflies and their caterpillars.

 Painted lady butterfly Vanessa cardui. Credit: Ben Andrew 

Nothing says summer is here better than the delicate, colourful, flitter and flutter of butterflies dancing from flower to flower, drinking their sweet nectar.

The UK is home to 59 species of butterfly – the painted lady and the clouded yellow are migrants to the UK each year. However, with eight more species of butterfly now listed as endangered, half of Britain's butterflies are on the threatened list.  Mirror

Butterflies are important markers for the health of our environment – where butterflies and moths flourish, you’ll also find a lot of invertebrates. And these three species are vital pollinators for our plants, natural pest controllers, and food sources for birds and bats. Fun fact from Butterfly Conservation - blue tits eat around 50 billion moth caterpillars each year in Britain and Ireland!

If butterflies in our gardens are a signal of a healthy greenspace, it’s important that we do all we can to give them a welcoming home in our own homes, no matter how big or small – here are our top tips to do just that:

  1. Grow Food for Butterflies

Growing a range of nectar-rich flowers which will bloom from spring through until autumn, is key to attracting butterflies to your garden, because nectar is their food source. Nectar-rich spring flowers are an essential energy boost when butterflies wake from their winter hibernation. And autumn’s nectar-giving flowers help butterflies top up their reserves to get through the through the winter slumber ahead.

Butterflies prefer either single open flowers or tubular flowers, for which they use their long, drinking-straw tongues to slurp up the sticky nectar. They also like their flowers to be planted in a sunny, sheltered spot, and in clumps of the same species.

Check out our Nature on Your Doorstep guide for How to Grow Butterfly Flowers and Plants, here.

Butterfly Conservation recommend these tasty butterfly blooms for May-June flowers:

  • Birds-foot trefoil
  • Comfrey
  • Granny’s bonnet
  • Honeysuckle
  • Thyme – great for growing in pots or on a windowsill planter.

 Birds-foot-trefoil Lotus corniculatus and Heartsease Viola t.  Credit: .Alison Searl 

And looking ahead for July-November:

  • Catmint
  • Globe thistle
  • Ivy
  • Michaelmas daisy
  • Scabious
  • Vipers bugloss

Don’t forget the hungry caterpillar!

Whilst there are a range of different garden plants butterflies will enjoy as food, they are much more choosey when it comes to where they lay their eggs. This is because when the eggs hatch, the caterpillars will munch the leaves of these carefully selected plants, and they need one or two specific ones for their survival. In fact, the caterpillars of the large white butterfly need their specific plants not only for food, but also to ward off predators. They feed upon plants from the brassica family, such as, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale - the leaves of which contain mustard oil. By eating these leaves and ingesting the mustard oil the caterpillars purposely make themselves smell and taste bad to take themselves off the menu.

Last year my first attempt at growing brassicas ended up in them being covered in large white butterfly caterpillars. It felt so exciting and special to know that my tiny patch of soil was helping the next generation of butterflies. I checked on them daily and loved watching them grow from tiny, finer-nail sized flecks, to long, plump-tummy wrigglers - so I happily sacrificed my little brassica crop to them.

 Cabbage white Caterpillars. Credit: Morwenna Alldis

For more weird and wonderful butterfly facts, including the recent discovery that butterflies have hearts in their wings, check out my blog from last year, here.

Because each species of butterfly is so specific as to where they lay their eggs, research first which butterflies are found in your neck of the woods before planting up. For example, red admiral and small tortoiseshell can be found throughout the UK, however, the large skipper is only found in Lowland England and Wales, and southern Scotland. Our Grow Plants for Caterpillars activity guides you through the process.

Butterfly Conservation again has a handy table outlining which plants caterpillars favour here. Some of our top picks are:

  • Holly and ivy – holly blue butterfly
  • Garlic-mustard and lady’s smock for the orange tip butterfly. See Adrian Thomas’s latest blog about them here.

If you have a larger garden or don’t mind a wilder look then:

  • Nettles – for red admiral, comma, peacock, and small tortoiseshells
  • Thistles – for painted ladies

 Small tortoiseshell butterfly Aglais urticae, adult basking. Credit: David Chandler 

Other ways to make give your local butterflies a warm welcome this summer…

  • Place large stones in sunny spots around your garden or leave sunny patches of wall bare so butterflies can bask.
  • An option for larger gardens is create a small-scale butterfly mound. The Butterfly Conservation factsheet here, can be adapted to suite. These mounds may also attract and provide home for solitary mining bees.
  • A shallow dish of water with stones in it – makes the perfect drinking spot for butterflies. If you have space, you might instead consider making a pond which will benefit many other species of wildlife.
  • Grow climbing plants for shelter from wet and frosty weather for butterflies and moths.
  • Create a little log pile – it’s the perfect hibernation spot for butterflies and moths

 Homes for wildlife, Credit: Andy Hay

Once you’ve transformed your garden into a fluttering feeding frenzy, be sure to log your butterfly sightings during this year’s Big Butterfly Count, between 15 July and 7 August – this will help Butterfly Conservation assess the health of our environment.

Find out how you can help the nature on your doorstep, here. To help us continue our vital work and give nature a home, please donate or become an RSPB member - we couldn't do any of it without your generosity and support.

Please also support Butterfly Conservation to save our UK butterflies and moths. They have volunteering opportunities, appeals and great advice to support our fluttery garden friends.

A red admiral butterfly Credit: Chris Gomersall