Followers of my Instagram grid will know how much I have been joyously celebrating the butterflies of my garden in recent weeks; July is made such a lovely month by these beauties. From dowdy Meadow Browns, to stately Red Admirals and the magical Marbled White, I have been fortunate to find my tiny back garden filled with butterflies on sunny days and delighted to welcome them. I set out to make a wildlife friendly garden here soon after we moved in nearly two years ago, and it is gratifying to see the results of that vision literally dancing before my eyes.
So, let’s start by working out who’s who on the guest list…
(I was hoping photograph the butterflies this afternoon, but as the sun is shining, their solar batteries are all highly charged, and they are off and away soon as I try to get near, so we will have to make do for now with some ‘heres some I took earlier’ photos!)
Meadow Brown, Gate Keeper, and Ringlet
The three ‘Browns’ of the butterfly world; lovers of field edges and hedgerows. The Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper are superficially quite similar, both being largely brown with rusty orange patches on their wings, but the Gatekeeper is smaller, generally ‘neater’ and brighter, with a slightly different arrangement of spots. In my garden both these species adore the brambles which swarm up from beyond the garden boundary, and are equally at home in the garden or the rambling hedgerow. The ringlet is darker in shade, and overall dusky brown. If one sits quietly for a few moments, you’ll see a row of white circles of rings decorating its wings, hence it’s name.
The admiral is an impressive and distinctive butterfly. A black background is strikingly marked with red stripes and finished with white dots. This is a bold butterfly which will readily visit garden flowers, and sit basking in sheltered sunny spots. The Red Admiral is one of a number of UK species which rely on nettles as their caterpillars’ food, so don’t be too hasty to villainize the stingers!
Another bold and impressive butterfly the Peacock is hard to mis-identify. Often one of the butterflies we first encounter, commonly on a buddliea bush, the Peacock has bright markings and strong colours. A plum-red background is overlaid with circular spots that look like large eyes, thought to be used to distract and frighten would-be predators. When this large butterfly closes its wings, the striking and startling colours are hidden inside, with the underside of the wing resembling a dead leaf. These butterflies hibernate as adults in the UK through the winter – if you look very carefully you might spot them folded up and motionless in the corner of your shed, or behind a covering of ivy in the tree hollow. Leave well alone and the butterfly should wake up and emerge into your garden again next spring.
I have just seen my first of this summer’s second brood Brimstone butterflies, nectaring at my neighbour’s runner beans. Generally associated with early Spring, these large lemon yellow butterflies are one of my favourite first signs that winter is past, but they also have a second flight time in late July and August.
The ‘Cabbage Whites’
The classic Cabbage White butterfly, loathed by veg growers and the delight of children, nationwide, can actually be separated into two different species. The Large and Small White differ not only in size, but also the pattern of black markings on their primarily white wings. I have to check my field guide every year however to remind myself, as I always have forget during their long winder absence! One of the favourite food plants for the caterpillars of the Whites, aside from any member of the cabbage family, are nasturtiums. I put fine mesh netting over my cabbage plants at the allotment, but always grow some nasturtiums nearby – the young lily-pad shaped leaves end up in my salads, whilst the older plants get devoured by very hungry caterpillars.
The two blue butterflies you’re most likely to see in a garden setting is the Holly Blue and the Common Blue. The Holly Blue specialises in feeding its caterpillars on evergreen plants such as holly and ivy, so will often be seen flying quite high, fluttering around dark green hedges and climbers. It is a silvery colour and a common visitor to gardens, parks and churchyards.
The Common Blue in comparison is a grassland species, and once of the iconic butterflies on my favourite landscapes; the South Downs. The flower rich chalk grassland that is such a feature of this area is the perfect habitat for this gorgeous little butterfly. I have planted a clump of birds foot trefoil in my garden, hoping to attract Common Blues to lay their eggs. If you have a sunny garden on slightly alkaline soil, this plant would happily grow in the edge of your lawn too.
I really LOVE these butterflies. I always think of them as being like flying pocket chess boards, and was amazed to find them visiting my garden in good numbers this past fortnight. July is the perfect time to see these butterflies, especially if you live in the southern half of the UK. They prefer tall grasses, and flower rich meadows; purple flowers such as scabious, thistles, knapweeds and wild marjoram seem to be favourites, although I have seen them feeding at my buddliea bush too.
Small Tortoiseshells are very pretty butterflies with bright orange wings bejewelled with golden bands and sapphires. It is a common garden visitors, yet another patron of the good old nettle, and in some years can be seen in large numbers. Although of generally low conservation concern, there has been a worrying decline in population in recent decades, so the Butterfly Conservation would be keen to hear of your sightings of this beautiful butterfly.
Seen an old torn crumpled leaf take flight and dash off over the garden fence and along the hedgerow? That’ll be a Comma butterfly! The Comma’s mottled orange wings have a very distinctive wavey edges, and when folded tight shut, the brown underside resembled almost exactly one of last autumns dead leaves. Look closely if you see a Comma resting like this and you’ll spot a little white mark on the underside of its wing which looks just like the punctuation mark it’s named after.
These little butterflies are easily overlooked, or even mistaken for moths, as they don’t really fit the ‘typical’ butterfly pattern. They hold their wings at a half folded angle, and as their name suggests, as flighty butterflies that ‘skip’ away from you when approached. They can be tricky to tell apart at first, but a good field guide will help, or theres lots of friendly folk on social media happy to assist with identification.
The fight time for Orange Tips is sadly over now; we will have to wait till April to see this cheerful butterfly again. Orange Tips are our first true spring butterfly; the first to emerge that hasn’t overwintered as an adult. The male is unmistakable, with bright white wings splashed with orange, but the females are easy to confuse as first with the earliest emerging adults of the small whites, especially in flight. It only takes a little practice to tell them apart.
A Word on Mavellous Moths…
But moths are boring, brown and only come out at night, I hear you cry! Nope, sorry. Although a commonly held belief, the idea that all moths are dull and purely nocturnal is simply not true. Some of our moths are day fliers, and use bright colours as warning signals to ward off predation. Some, like the Silver Y, and the Humming Bird Hawkmoth even migrate to our gardens, parks and meadows from far beyond our shores. I know right, a moth, flying across oceans… it’s unbelievable but I promise you it’s true!
Even those moths which are nocturnal, are far from boring (well, I admit, the hundreds of Micro-Moths do require some pretty extreme nerdy study to get to know well…) and they are a vital part of the garden (and wider) ecosystem. From pollination services to food for bats, not to mention the hundreds and thousands of caterpillars that end up in the hungry beaks of our baby birds each spring, it soon becomes clear that moths are just as important as butterflies when celebrating the wildlife value of your back yards. White flowers which show up will in low light levels, and those such as honeysuckle, jasmine, evening primrose and nicotiana which produce strong perfume on warm evenings are brilliant plants to include in your garden if you want to attract moths as well as butterflies. *
The Big Butterfly Count
Now you know a few of our common garden butterfly visitors, why not see who’s visiting your garden or local park?
An annual nationwide survey, coordinated by Butterfly Conservation @savebutterflies, the Big Butterfly Count captures data about the abundance and spread of UK butterflies, helping protect and conserve our precious biodiversity. Ever better than this… YOU can help! The survey starts today (Friday 17th July) and runs through till Sunday 9th August. Simply spend 15mins counting the butterflies you see in your garden or nearby park/green-space, then log your records via the website or free mobile app. There’s even a handy chart you can download!
Find out more, download free guides, and sign up to take part at: bigbutterflycount.butterfly-conservation.org
Go on, do your bit for citizen science this weekend!
*More about planting for butterflies (and other pollinators) on another blog post soon!)