Foodplants for Butterflies and Moths

What would you think about if I asked you for good foodplants for butterflies and moths? Buddleja? Verbena bonariensis? Hebe?
It’s true – they’re all great nectaring plants, and non-native to the UK. So why should I bother with native plants if I want to encourage butterflies and moths?

Well, many native plants are very good sources of nectar, of course. Hemp agrimony, knapweed, honeysuckle, wild marjoram and field scabious spring immediately to mind. These are all attractive and in some cases long flowering wildflowers. As nectar plants are they as good as the ornamentals? It’s a far from straightforward question and not my topic here!

Celastrina argiolus
Holly Blue on Holly leaf
Where native plants incontrovertibly DO win is as foodplants for caterpillars. British caterpillars, by and large, need British plants to munch. This can, of course, extend to cultivars, which explains why cabbages are regularly written off. There are exceptions too; I offer up nasturtiums (from South America) in my veg patch as a sacrifice to happy Small White caterpillars.*

At this point gardeners say they have a nettle patch for caterpillars. Well yes – good foodplant but not enough on their own. Atropos Publishing has a good guide which shows which species of butterfly and larger moth depend on which foodplant. Urtica – nettles – have 35 associated caterpillars. It highlights the difference between imported plants and native. Buddleja are a good example; the book lists only 3. This is very different to a native plant – field scabious has 14.

Grasses too are good larval foodplants, which is one of the reasons why we encourage people to sow meadow mixes rather than just wildflowers. Cocksfoot, for example (although not ideal for a meadow), comes in as supporting 35 different types of caterpillar.

Trees and hedge species are even better. Sometimes they have almost exclusive or totally exclusive relationships with individual plants. I think of Yellow Brimstones and Buckthorn, Purple Emperors and Oak, Brown Hairstreak and Blackthorn. The king of all our plants is the Oak; according to the book, both oaks support over 120 types of moth and butterfly caterpillars. It’s said an oak tree will lose around half its leaves to insects in an average year.

Which are the top five foodplants? They’re all native trees or shrubs:
English and Sessile oaks (Q. robur and petraea)
Willows (Salix spp.)
Birches (Betula spp.)
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

*and thence happy blue tits etc.etc.

How to Become a Minor Deity

Still recovering from our older son George’s 18th I spent some down time in the garden today looking for butterflies. Small CopperAppropriately enough, as next week is Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count, sponsored by Marks and Spencer. I counted 6 species in half an hour loitering around the herb garden – Common Blue, Large White, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Small Copper, and Brimstone. Nothing unusual to get the hardened Lep excited, but really good news for me; when we moved here there were only Whites around, so we’ve done our bit to create good habitat for butterflies. I’ve also recently seen Six Spot Burnets and Large Skippers. In a very modest sort of way I feel like a kind of God; there’s a lot you can do to build up a good population of colonial species like these.

Alder buckthorn
In the herb garden Oregano seemed to be a particular magnet for the Browns, and in the borders Veronicastrum for the Brimstones.These guys are a particular success, as I hadn’t seen one around here at all until now. Why have they suddenly arrived? Because I planted a short stretch of Alder Buckthorn, their larval food plant, in a section of hedge. You can see how tasty it has proved. With butterflies it’s not just the nectar plants you need – it’s their whole habitat. When you get that right the effects are pretty much instantaneous.

Hampton Court Show

Floral Marquee, Hampton Court showThese days I upset myself by spoiling perfectly nice events by plunging into a familiar kind of off-putting eco censoriousness, which is as tedious for me as it must be for the people who are subjected to it. So if you want to miss the tedious bits of last week’s day-I-messed-up at the Hampton Court Flower Show, then skip straight to the picture of the Eryngium.

How can I explain what upset me? It wasn’t so much the “garden centre” element, although the Country Living Magazine Pavilion, as a symptom of it, was enormous – and furnished me with three pairs of very good value stripy socks, so I shouldn’t complain. Each to his own, it’s a free world, commercial pressure, etc. etc.. No, I think what upset me are the missed opportunities these shows represent.

Regretting that second pint

Some examples. There was an enormous gushing Magritte like pink penis – sorry – tap – which was my favourite design feature of the show gardens (along with the Falmouth College garden), apparently raising awareness of overactive bladder syndrome. There were a lot of other water features too, and according to the catalogue no less than 17 water feature suppliers’ stands, pitched on the straw coloured grass. Was there a single supplier of water butts or water saving devices there? No. Grey water irrigation systems? No. Reed beds? What about green roofs? You’re having a laugh. Holiday Inn (“implementing sound environmental practices”) sponsored an interesting but modest area called Sustainable Gardens, to “showcase themes relating to the environment and biodiversity”. I guess the other show gardens didn’t? Er…well, now you come to mention it… Certainly the Legoland garden wasn’t a very helpful advert in the International Year of Biodiversity. Of course there has to be a commercial logic to all of this, and it’s absolutely critical not to take the fun out of gardening, but PLEASE can the RHS not treat “the environment and biodiversity” as somehow seperate issues to mainstream gardening, and fully embrace and promote them. It needs to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk. HoneybeeThey could at least start by vetting exhibitors and managing a tiered rate system according to how “eco friendly” they were. They might even actively solicit certain types of exhibitor. I wondered if biodiversity was a consideration in judging the show gardens (I loved the Bradstone Garden at Chelsea, for example, which showed how it can be done)? Does anyone think about the overall impression the show might create? Organisations like the RHS are the kind of opinion formers who need to be at the vanguard of a new paradigm shift.
Right, that’s that off my chest. It was lovely to see all sorts of people at the show. The BBKA were there, and honey bees from their demo hive were much in evidence in (some) parts of the Show, although I wonder how many punters noticed there were no butterflies about. Anywhere.

My main pleasure as a non-designer is to wander around the small nurseries, who can be a delight. Downderry Nursery’s stand in the Floral marquee – top – was lovely. We hope to be selling lavender supplied by them soon. Owners Simon and Dawn Charlesworth are very much on side when it comes to bees; I bumped into Simon originally at LASI, with whom he’s trialling different types of lavender. I also hope to start selling Hellebores from Harvey’s Garden Plants, who also look like just the sort of folk we ought to be promoting. More anon. Jekka’s Herb stand was lovely too – and rather more swamped in bees than the Copella Bee Garden.


It was nice to meet Jake Hobson, one of our suppliers, who imports Japanese ladders and tools and sold me the most beautiful pair of secateurs. I had a nice chat too with the man at Clear Water Revival, who nearly sold us a swimming pond when I was affluent. Lovely company, great product. It would be good to supply them with native aquatic plants. Talking of which, I loved the locally based Dorset Water Lilly company, and other favourites included the Garlic Farm on the Isle of Wight. I hope you all had a good show. As to the folk selling bronze butterflies on wires, good luck to you too – soon they’ll be the only butterflies your customers will see.

Our Meadow in July

Greater Knapweed clumpMeadow BrownOur meadow is lovely at the moment; although the most obvious flowers are Greater Knapweed, Yarrow and Meadow Vetchling, the Self-heal and Lady’s Bedstraw are also out. The meadow is alive with insects; it is buzzing and clicking, chirping and rustling. Fantastic. I thought I’d stand in a clump of flowering Knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) for ten minutes in the morning and in the afternoon and see what came along. I’m no entomologist, so please excuse the identification, but how gratifying to see so many friendly pollinators. Nothing out of the ordinary, but a good crowd.There were, of course, many more, either too small or too fast for this useless photographer, Six Spot Burnetbut at least this gives an idea of what you might help with a small meadow area…
Greater Knapweed is one of the best nectar plants, and it seems to attract all sorts of pollinators. Most obvious were the butterflies (and day flying moths). We’ve once again been swamped with Meadow Browns this year, but in my half an hour I also saw a Six Spot Burnet moth and a Small Tortoisehell. I’m sure we’ll have Gatekeepers later on too. Although Greater Knapweed seems to be just the ticket for butterflies, it is more of a struggle for our honey bees with their much shorter tongues. Perhaps surprisingly they’re not dissuaded, Small TortoisehellHoney beeand in the afternoon sun were the most numerous insect about, with two or three simultaneously working the same patch. They were very specific in their taste, as were the Hoverflies; not for them Meadow Vetchling or Lady’s Bedstraw. The solitary bees I saw were the same. Much quicker and more agile than bumblebees, there must have been at least 6 different species at work, although I only managed to photograph three. I’m still hopeless with my identification;Large Solitary Bee and KnapweedSolitary Bee and Knapweed I think there were Mason Bees of various types and Leaf-cutter bees too. Since we made our solitary bee box I have become more aware of these chaps and, consequently, see many more of them about, but still struggle to work out who is who. There are, after all, over 250 species to get to grips with and they all move fast. More work required. I am marginally more at home with bumblebees. Solitary Bee and KnapweedOur garden and meadow areas have become Bumblebee Central, thanks to judicious planting and management. Although we have plenty of Common Carder Bees (below top left), I’m still disappointed not to have seen the Shrill Carder Bee, but I live in hope! I think I have also seen Brown-banded carder bees (Bombus humilis) about, but I couldn’t be certain. The other unmistakable bumblebee around at this time of year is the Red Tailed Bumblebee, B. lapidarius. There’s a nest under the orchard wall around 50 metres away, and it wasn’t surprising to see a few workers of this very smart Common Carder BeeRed Tailed Bumblebeeand relatively short tongued species around the nectar rich area where I was snapping. My identification skills start to go awry at this point, however. Apparently the key difference between B. hortorum, the Garden Bumblebee, and B. lucorum, the White-tailed bumblebee, is the yellow band at the bottom of the thorax. Tricky. I hope I’ve got this right. I think this is a White-tailed Bumblebee – i.e. without yellow band on thorax. White-tailed Bumblebee Common but endearing. This next lady, then, could well be B.hortorum, or a Garden Bumblebee worker. She is rather moth-eaten, but she does have a yellow band at the bottom of her thorax and, apparently, a very long tongue. If I’m lucky I can sex bumblebees, which you can do by looking at the antenna; long, round antenna mean a male. I might have some idea on bumblebee identification, but I know next to nothing about different hoverflies. I think I can only confidently name one of these. Like solitary bees I am astonished to find the vast number of native species – around 270 – Garden BumblebeeHoverfly 1and they are strong enough flyers that, like butterflies, we also entertain migrants. I’ve always been told their larvae have an insatiable appetite for greenfly, but it turns out that only about a third of them eat aphids. They’re interesting and attractive insects, though, and – surprise surprise – many are in decline as a result of habitat loss. I thought I’d add some to my gallery, as they frequented the Knapweed too. Hoverfly 2Hoverfly 4The meadow will start to look tired in a little while, and once some of the Knapweed goes to seed I’ll cut it. I don’t need the hay, so it doesn’t matter if it’s all stalky. The sheep are already running through some sections of it where there’s nothing left to flower to save me the effort of cutting it. In the meantime I’m looking forward to more coffee breaks out there in the sun, and enjoying it as much as the birds seem to be. Hoverfly 3I haven’t even begun to describe the Flycatchers, finches, martins and swallows… I’m just amazed by how much there is going on in such a small area, and equally amazed at how easy it has been to establish such a rich habitat. Immensely satisfying – go on, give it a go!

Garden Plants for Butterflies and Bees

Symphytum officinale
Not so good for honeybees...
We’re often asked to come up with a top ten list of garden plants for butterflies and bees, and I’m never quite sure what to say. IBRA (the International Bee Research Association) produce an excellent book, Plants for Bees, with notes telling you whether a plant is particularly good for nectar or pollen, or for bumblebees as opposed to honeybees. It helpfully also covers trees and native plants, which are, of course, important as food plants for butterfly and moth larvae. The British Beekeepers’ Association provide a helpful list, as do the standard beekeeping books I use. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Butterfly Conservation have good summaries on their websites too. Anway, everyone I talk to or read seems to have their own favourites so I’m just going to come up with some general guidelines pinched from various reliable sources:

    1. Always prefer single flowered cultivars over double flowered.
    2. Don’t buy the fancy hybrids you saw on offer at the local garden centre. If they’re not sterile the chances are that any pollen or nectar they have will be inaccessible. Think wildflowers, or cottage garden perennials, or herbs.
    3. Try to ensure that you provide a continuous supply of forage throughout the active season for bees and butterflies. Different butterfly species and different generations are around from spring until autumn. The trend towards warmer winters means bees could be flying almost any time throughout the year; they need pollen particularly in the spring and early summer for their brood, then increasingly nectar for honey. Traditionally beekeepers referred to a period in mid summer as the “June gap”, when there is often a temporary shortage of flowers which it is useful to compensate for too.
    4. Plant in clumps. Jan Miller makes this point in her helpful article in the latest edition of The Cottage Gardener; butterflies can’t see well and will find groups of flowers more easily.
    5. Plant a variety of plants. Bees seem to be healthier if they are not surrounded by a monoculture, and on a practical basis different species need different sorts of flowers as they have different length tongues. Long tongued bumblebees and solitary bees like the Hairy Footed Flower Bee love comfrey, for example, but short tongued honeybees can’t reach its nectaries.
    6. If you’re particularly keen on bumblebees, concentrate on plants from the pea family (Fabaceae), like the Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus latifolius) or Red Clover (Trifolium pratense). Dave Goulson explains why in his book “Bumblebees”; Fabaceae pollen has the richest protein and highest proportion of essential amino acids. These plants are also of great importance as a source of nectar.
    7. Plant British plants, particularly for butterflies. They need natives to provide food for their larvae, and most need very specific plants. Yellow Brimstones will come to your garden only if you plant Buckthorn. Andrew George’s book “The Butterfly Friendly Garden” has an excellent list of native plants and their associated butterfly species.
    8. Plant helpful trees if you can. There are a lot of flowers on an apple tree.
    9. Make a wildlife pond. Not only will you then be able to grow several of our most beautiful and nectar rich wildflowers (which we’d be happy to sell you!), but the water is good for every insect in the garden. For bees specifically, honeybees collect water (for their brood, to maintain humidity in the brood nest, and to dilute their own honey), and the mud is useful for mason bees to make their nests.
Red Mason Bees Collecting Mud
Red Mason Bees Collecting Mud At The Pondside


Sedum 'Purple Emperor' and squadron of White-tailed bumblebees
Sedum 'Purple Emperor' and squadron of White-tailed bumblebees
It’s nearly September and there seems to be a new urgency in the air. Now we have taken our honey the honeybees, battling wasps at the hive entrance, are building up stores ready for winter. The butterflies now look very ragged and faded, as do this year’s Bumblebees – although the new queens look pristine, and are feeding frantically to build up fat for their hibernation.
I’m acutely aware of the need for nectar flow before the ivy flowers, and for us although Verbena and some Asters seem to do well for insects at this time of year the plant that ticks all the boxes is Sedum, or Stonecrop (spectabile) and Orpine (telephium). The large flowerheads with their scores of florets are perfect for most pollinators. We’ve devoted a nice big section of a sunny southwest facing border to it, where I grow three different varieties in order to ensure seamless foraging from late August to October. As ever, the fancier the cultivar the less helpful it is – I’ve had several failed experiments.
Male Red-tailed bumblebee
Male Red-tailed bumblebee

Small Tortoiseshell and Honeybee
Small Tortoiseshell and Honeybee
Male Carder Bee
Male Carder Bee
I’m cursing because I can’t remember the name of the more prostrate plant shown right- can you help me out ? Incidentally, there are many more of the smaller male bumblebees about at this time of year. Having mated they have nothing to do; lacking pollen baskets all they do is feed. Sedum telephium ‘Purple Emperor’ (pictured right), named after its foliage rather than flower colour, is in full flower at the moment and attracting a wide range of pollinators. Or at least I think that’s what it is; it might just be Orpine, Sedum telephium ‘Matrona’, which is another fabulous nectar plant. The odd honeybee and Carder bee are trying to winkle open ‘Autumn Joy’ (below right) already – in a week or so the flowerheads will be heaving with honeybees once the sun hits them. Excuse all the bumblebee photos by the way – I’m honing my identification skills, and I’m seemingly no better at picking different kinds of Sedum than I am Carder bees…