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How to enjoy butterflies & moths in your garden


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Butterflies and moths are among the most popular and beautiful insects to appear in our gardens. The reason for their visit can be anything from searching for nectar to feed on, to somewhere where they can enjoy a little warmth, find a place to shelter, or even somewhere to lay their eggs. Very few species of butterflies and moths will actually cause damage to the flowers or vegetables in your garden – in fact, they’re important pollinators and their presence is a good indicator of a healthy environment.

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What’s the difference between moths & butterflies?

It’s easy to identify whether a visitor to your garden is a butterfly or a moth. Butterflies all fly by day (and a few also at night, when they will fly towards light) and have distinctive clubbed antennae. Most, but not all moths fly by night and have either wiry or feathered antennae. Most butterflies will rest with their wings in an upright position, perpendicular to their back (the only exception being some of the rather moth-like skippers). In contrast, most moths rest with their wings laid out to either side of their body. The distinguishing feature shared by all butterflies and moths is their coloured wings, which can range from subtle shades of a single colour to incredibly striking patterns depending on the species.

Why do moths & butterflies visit gardens?

Most butterflies and moths feed on nectar, which they suck from flowers using their long proboscis like a straw. The sugar-rich drink provides them with the instant energy they need for flight. Butterflies seem to be particularly attracted to blue or pink flowers, while many moths like pale flowers that reflect the light and are strongly scented at dusk. Most gardens will have some food plants for moths and butterflies, whether they are ‘weeds’ such as dandelions, or trees like birch and willow – not to mention cabbages and currant bushes. The more food plants there are, the more species of butterflies and moths a garden will potentially support. To encourage more varieties to visit your garden, make sure to buy plants that feature the special logo on the care card that shows they’re good sources of pollen and nectar.

Another great advantage of gardens is that they offer an ideal place for butterflies and moths to rest and enjoy warmth, but also somewhere that provides shelter when it is needed.

Which plants are the most beneficial for butterflies & moths?

In general, the flowers that butterflies and moths like best are the traditional cottage kinds that most closely resemble their wild counterparts. Buddleja or ‘the butterfly bush’ is famous for attracting butterflies, especially when it’s placed in a warm spot by a brick wall. Other butterfly favourites include ice plant, lavender, wallflowers, verbena, and Michaelmas daisy. Moths are lured by the evening scent of flowers like privet, sweet rocket, night-flowering stock and evening primrose.

How to deal with unwanted visitors

Very few butterflies and moths are a real nuisance in today’s gardens. The main ones are the two ‘cabbage white’ butterflies – large white and small white – and the less well known cabbage moth, whose caterpillar bores into the heart of the vegetable. Their numbers can be kept under control by interplanting nasturtiums or marigolds among the cabbages. Nasturtium acts as a decoy, while marigolds work as a repellant.

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