Three quarters of British butterflies are in decline and four species have already become extinct.
Sir David Attenborough said ““During my lifetime I have seen at first-hand how the UK’s once plentiful butterflies have dwindled and diminished with some species even becoming extinct. “
Here’s a few reasons why butterflies are in decline:
- Loss of habitat caused by everything from new housing estates to intensive farming to deforestation.
- over-use of a broad spectrum insecticides and neonicotinoids
- Changes in weather patterns (mild winters, cold springs, wet summers, drought)
- Climate change caused by carbon emissions
- Air pollution
Benefits of butterflies
When butterflies move from flower to flower gathering nectar, they often pick up pollen on their legs and knees which gets carried with them to the next flower. One third of the food we eat relies on the work of pollinators such as butterflies, so they do vital work for us.
Natural pest control
Some butterfly larvae feed off aphids, Aphids can cause untold damage to some of your favourite plants. Some caterpillars keep weedy plants under control by eating the leaves.
They tell us what’s going on
As butterflies are very sensitive to the environment, scientists use the presence or absence of butterflies as a predictor of whether an ecosystem is healthy. According to the butterfly conservation, butterflies are recognised by the Government as indicators of a healthy environment and ecosystem. Their fragility makes them quick to react to change so their struggle to survive is a serious warning about our environment. In 2015, conservationist Chris Packham said “this is the final warning bell… If butterflies are in trouble, rest assured everything else is.” – and as we cannot separate ourselves from the environment, that ultimately means us.
They provide food
At any stage in their life cycle, from caterpillars to butterflies, they provide food for birds, spiders, other insects and spiders.
People love butterflies!
Butterflies are beautiful and make people feel happy! When asked why people love butterflies, here are some of the things they said:
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“They represent freedom, movement, variety, beauty, gentleness..”
“They are so beautiful and graceful, I’ve never seen a butterfly that does not make me smile.”
“Their fragile wings can be crushed with the slight brush of a hand yet their strength and agility ensures their ability to survive the brutal realities of their environment.”
“Butterflies are proof that you can go through a great deal of darkness, yet become something beautiful.”
How to attract butterflies to your garden
Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to help butterflies, and you don’t need a massive garden to make a difference. Just a windowbox or container garden can attract numerous butterflies and help keep the population thriving.
Provide for the entire life cycle
The first thing is to remember is that butterflies have a FOUR stage life cycle, starting as tiny eggs laid on leaves which emerge into caterpillars, moving into the chrysalis stage before emerging from the cocoon as butterflies ready to find a mate and begin the process again. Throughout their lifecycle, butterflies rely on flowers and foliage for energy.
Provide nectar-rich plants
Butterflies will visit your garden for nectar, so provide nectar-rich plants such as buddleia, milkweed and flowering herbs such as marjoram and oregano. According to Wyevale Garden Centre, British butterflies are attracted to white, pink, purple, blue or yellow flowers. [Edited 23rd September 2021. Wyevale Garden Centre have now gone into liquidation, so the reference for that statement has been removed from the web]
This seedball tin containing native wildflower seeds for butterflies includes forget me not, yarrow, red campion, purple loosestrife and musk mallow:
This packet contains seeds for flowers that are laden with pollen and nectar to attract butterflies:
This budget-friendly option includes a donation to insect charities and organisations:
Provide the right conditions
You’ll probably have noticed you see butterflies on sunny days, so try and plant your nectar-rich plants in warm, sheltered, sunny spots.
Some butterflies prefer cool, humid places, so a garden pond, such as this Apollo 150L Start Pond, is ideal and will be especially popular if you plant hemp agrimony!
If you don’t have a water feature, provide shallow dishes or water or a bird bath for butterflies to drink from. And be aware that in a drought you need to keep your nectar-rich plants watered, so they thrive and continue to provide food. This Bird Bath/Feeder with Wall Bracket is ideal if you have cats and want to wall mount your bird bath.
All-year round gardening
Remember to provide flowers that blossom throughout the year and sheltered spots all year round to help butterflies complete their life cycle. Remember, it’s not just nectar rich plants for butterflies that you need to provide, but host plants for the caterpillars too.
Here are some books specifically about gardening to attract butterflies:
If you have windfall apples, leave a few on the ground for late summer butterflies to drink the juice. Let some ivy grow as it provides a late nectar supply during autumn. If you have a large garden, consider allowing a small area to grow wild to provide host plants for caterpillars – stinging nettles in particular provide the ideal ‘nursery’ for eggs and caterpillars.
Insecticides are brilliant for killing pests, but they kill harmless wildlife too, such as butterflies. Look for organic alternatives.
Share your food
Do you have an overripe banana in the house? Or some strawberries that are past their best? Don’t throw them away, place the food outside for butterflies to have a feast.
The Big Butterfly Count
Once you’ve done all the work in your garden to attract your winged friends, take part in The Big Butterfly count – the largest survey of its kind in the world. It takes place July and August each year and all you need to do is count butterflies for 15 minutes during a bright, sunny day.
Share the love
Educating others is vital to help protect butterflies. Tell your friends what you are doing, share seeds with work colleagues or encourage your children to create a butterfly garden.
Finally, if you’re looking for a gift for someone that can help, author Jonathan Bradley loves butterflies so much he’s written 33 poems about them in his book “Papilones”. The profits go to Butterfly Conservation.
Jonathan says “I feel that butterflies are part of the poetry of nature, and a world without butterflies would, in the end, be a world without people. The poems are about butterflies and about people; we depend on each other.”
Have you noticed a decline in butterflies over recent years and what do you do to attract them to your garden?