Gardening for Moths (and Butterflies too)

A couple of years ago, at the height of the summer, I sat out in my back garden on a pleasant, sunny afternoon to spend 15 minutes on the lookout for any butterflies (or day flying moths) that happened to flutter by. Despite there being plenty of other flying insects around (maybe my baseline is set too low), the end result of this short surveillance were sightings of a single Large White and a glimpsed Small Tortoiseshell. Left feeling that two butterflies didn’t make a summer, I resolved that next year my contribution to the Big Butterfly Count was going to be different!

Butterfly Conservation – the charity who run the survey – obviously thought I could do better too, because, after I’d submitted my survey results, they offered me a free trial membership. This included a membership pack with an excellent book on gardening for the benefit of butterflies and moths, so, armed with some helpful hints and tips, I went off to take stock of my garden.

The advice given in the book was straightforward enough: plant plenty of nectar rich flowers, and aim to have plants in flower all year around. Also, watch out for garden centre ornamentals that don’t actually produce any nectar –  the RHS perfect for pollinators symbol is a good indicator of the plants to choose. Aim for a range of flower types / shapes to suit different pollinators, but simple open flowers, which allow butterflies to get at the nectar, are perfect. Plants which have been bred to be doubled flowered are more difficult to access.

Luckily for me, I already had a few good plants to work with in my garden and I have tried to add a few more since. I have now planted: Lavender, Wallflowers, English Marigolds, a large-ish Fuchsia hedge, several Honeysuckles and Jasmine. I have also started to think about creating untidy and untouched patches of more wild plants to provide winter cover, as well as food plants for caterpillars emerging in the spring. Something that the guide book from BC made me realise was, that alongside butterflies, what I was also likely to be attracting with these plants was moths – the Jasmine is night-flowering and the Fuchsia attracts Elephant Hawkmoths!

The thought of attracting more moths to the garden grabbed me for some reason. Moths get a bit of a bad press compared to butterflies and are often considered the drab-looking poor relation. However, there are 2,500 species of moths in the UK, compared to 59 butterfly species, and many are just as large and colourful. Spotting them at night is a little more challenging than spotting a butterfly in the sunshine – although all the more rewarding – and there are also plenty of day flying species too. Seeing high numbers of moths, and a diversity of species in the garden, is a good indicator of overall ecosystem health as moths provide food for a multitude of species further up the food chain.

When summer came around the following year, it was a hot and dry – and that, combined with the fact I was now actively on the lookout for butterflies and moths, definitely led to more sightings. The highlights of these were undoubtedly the moths. My id skills come with a slight health warning, but here goes: I spotted day-flying Cinnabar Moths, and one afternoon a Hummingbird Hawk Moth – such a thrillingly exotic creature on UK shores. During the long summer evenings my neighbours’ buddleias were crowded with the fat dusty bodies of Yellow Underwings and, after sun-down, I found Small Magpies – of the moth variety – on my windowsills. The absolute highlight though was a White Plume Moth, spotted through some double-glazed, frosted glass and looking like it was made of starched lace.

My aim over the last year or so has been to make a home for nature in my garden, and to enjoy seeing a greater variety of butterflies and moths as a result – and of course to play my tiny part as a citizen scientist by collecting data for Butterfly Conservation. This last part is something I’d encourage everyone to take part in. To build a good dataset with national coverage it is just as important that you take part in the survey if you’ve never seen a butterfly in your garden as if you have them hanging off every leaf!

And while this might be the off-season for butterflies and moths (although many species keeping flying into December and can be seen again in February) we can still take a look at the results of this year’s survey and start planning ways to improve our gardens, balconies and window boxes in time for the summer.

Finally, in case you’re wondering about the results of the Big Butterfly count 2018? In my garden it was – One. Single. Large. White.  All good data, but I think it might be time for a national moth survey too!

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Simon Doxford

I have a background in ecology and plant sciences research and I now work as a government analyst. I am looking forward to writing for wildlife articles as a way to continue learning about ecology and conservation.
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