Flying flowers - the butterflies and moths in your garden (Lepidoptera)
Jess Creber, Animal Biology and Conservation, Oxford Brookes University
The theme for this month at Naturehood has been insects! In this blog entry I will be taking you through a few ways to help and identify butterflies, their cousins the moth, and both of their predecessors - caterpillars.
There are 59 species of butterfly and 2,500 moth species in the UK - that is a rather large extended family! You may be wondering about the difference between butterflies and moths. Well, it is not the time of day they appear or the colour of their wings. Moths commonly come out in the day, even more than butterflies due to the larger number of species. So how do we tell the difference without a microscope?
First, UK moths have fluffier and tapered antennae, whereas butterflies have club-shaped ones.
If you are unable to get this close to your garden friends, then wing placement is another thing to watch out for. Butterflies commonly have their wings vertical to their bodies when at rest, whereas moths usually hold them horizontally open. There are of course exceptions, but this is a common rule for identification.
If you are interested in reading more about this, head to the butterfly conservation webpage for more information.
Butterflies are a unique insect mainly distinguished by their beautiful wings. I am sure many of you have had the joy of watching chrysalises to get a peek at the incredible life cycle of these flying flowers.
Butterflies have tiny taste sensors, almost like tongues, on their feet, proboscis (tongue-like structure) and antennae, to see where is safe to lay their eggs. They also use them to check if plants are safe to eat. If that’s not the coolest mother’s instinct I don’t know what is!
Most active in sunny summer months, there are many ways to help butterflies in your Naturespace. Planting nectar- and pollen-rich plants is a sure way to attract any insect, but especially butterflies as they get their energy from the nectar, the sweet sugary substance in flowers. Using their proboscis like a straw they have a purely liquid diet. Imagine trying to suck up a salad through a straw - just not possible!
Another way to attract butterflies is by leaving out sugary water or fruits, such as bananas, which they can feed on. This is more successful when flowers such as marigolds, lavender and hyacinths, to name but a few, are also present.
Unlike other pollinators, butterflies do not carry pollen on their bodies but on their legs. Just another reason to look after them in your garden.
To find seasonal flowers to plant head to the Naturehood website!
Recent research has shown that out of 838 swabbed moths, just under half were found to transport pollen between 47 different plants. The plants that they visited are not commonly visited by other pollinators such as hoverflies, bees and even the moths’ cousin, the butterflies.
The best way to help moths, as well as other pollinators and insects in general, is to cut down on pesticides. Pesticides kill the caterpillars of both moths and butterflies meaning they cannot later help pollinate flowers.
Another way to benefit moths, like butterflies, is by planting nectar-rich plants. For moths it is important to plant night-flowering plants, such as evening primrose, to increase pollen diversity in your neighbourhood. Of course on the flip side, day-flying moths will love just what your butterflies do.
As the book The Very Hungry Caterpillar references, a caterpillar needs to eat and eat and eat to gear up to becoming a chrysalis, the silken sack in which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly or moth. When the juvenile hormone levels are high in the caterpillar it knows it’s time to weave a silky pad on the bottom of a leaf. It then weaves its home for the next stage of its life.
Both moth and butterfly caterpillars benefit from native trees such as birch, willow and hawthorn. This is because they need a safe and secure environment to spin their chrysalis. Long grassy areas will also benefit your neighbourhood caterpillars by providing food and shelter.
Head on over to the Naturehood platform to record your sightings and actions for wildlife.