Butterflies flitting between new blooms are synonymous with spring. You can create your very own natural haven for these beautiful insects by simply making a few changes to you garden. By Arnold Ras

Creating a home for butterflies and moths is exactly what Steve Woodhall and Lindsay Gray had in mind when they wrote the book Gardening for butterflies. Wild talked to Steve to find out more about these winged insects and how to welcome them to your garden.

Do you have a fynbos garden? Then invest in one or two September bushes to serve as a larval host plant for the pea blue (Lampides boeticus).

Do you have a fynbos garden? Then invest in one or two September bushes to serve as a larval host plant for the pea blue (Lampides boeticus). Pictures courtesy of Struik Nature

To begin with, butterflies are not just pretty to watch. As Steve explains, they play an important role in the ecosystem as pollinators. “Butterflies and moths are as important as bees in this respect and they are a vital part of the food chain. Many other creatures eat butterflies and moths, which are largely herbivorous. Their caterpillars attract the more difficult insectivorous birds that birders relish seeing in their gardens.”

BookReviewGardeningForButterflies-cover-Aug2015

These days butterflies and moths have fewer and fewer places to live. “With today’s increasing development and urban sprawl, the natural habitats of butterflies and moths (and all creatures for that matter) are under threat. Suitable habitat becomes shrunk down into watercourses and small nature reserves and parks. Their populations become fragmented and the gene flow that is vital to survival is stopped. One ends up with a system of islands, and the biodiversity of islands is well known to be less than large land masses,” explains Steve.

The result is an overall loss of biodiversity and localised extinctions. Yet by creating a healthy environment for butterflies and moths in your garden, you can have a major impact on their conservation. “Planting locally indigenous plants in gardens allows the local butterfly and moth species to find corridors along which they spread, find mates and grow in numbers. If enough gardeners do this, the urban decline in butterfly and moth numbers will be halted and reversed.”

The crimson speckled footman’s (Utetheisa pulchella) caterpillar is known to feed on various grasses, plantains and cotton.

The crimson speckled footman’s (Utetheisa pulchella) caterpillar is known to feed on various grasses, plantains and cotton.

Before heading to your nearest nursery, keep the following tips from Steve in mind: Plan your garden “Have a large sunny northwest-facing open area as an arena full of perching places and flowering plants for the butterflies and moths to interact. Try to have locally indigenous host plants to feed larvae (caterpillars), and a year-round supply of nectar sources for the adults.”

Choose the right plants

“Although most butterfly and moth species specialise in one plant species or family, a few are generalists or feed on large families. Many plants or plant families have more than one species of butterfly or moth that use them. Certain plants are special as host plants for certain families of butterfly or moth. For example, arum lilies and impatiens seem to be best for the spectacular hawk moths.” You can find specific information on which plants are best for particular butterflies and moths in Gardening for butterflies.

Don’t practise pest control

“Insecticides (and pesticides in general) have to be abandoned if you want a good butterfly and moth population in your garden. Systemic insecticides live on in plants’ foliage and kill ‘good’ species as well as bad. And don’t be tempted to think you can ‘nuke’ an infestation of aphids and not harm your butterflies. Overspray is a fact of life. Even non-systemic soap-based insecticides have to be used with care.”

Painted lady

Painted lady

Be patient

“Remember, you don’t get equal numbers year-round; spring and late summer are the best times. Be prepared for some larval damage to your plants. Most larvae are pretty good at hiding their presence and nibble a little here, a little there, so you don’t notice them so much. Some species’ larvae defoliate the host plants, but in most cases the damage is temporary and the plant bounces back afterwards.”

Gardening for butterflies. Steve Woodhall, Lindsay Gray. 2015. Struik Nature. R230.

Is it a moth or a butterfly? Telling them apart is not as easy as you think! Butterfly expert Steve Woodall takes a look at the difference between moths and butterflies.