Gardening for moths and butterflies

(c) Derek Moore

Butterflies and moths have suffered huge declines in recent years due to habitat loss, pesticide use and our changing climate. How we manage our gardens can make a huge difference for these struggling insects, creating wildlife corridors through our urban landscapes and providing food and shelter.

Moths are often ignored in favour of their better-known relatives, butterflies, but once you meet a few of our 2,500 moth species it quickly becomes apparent they are just as striking! You don’t have to stay up all night to see them either – some moths fly in the day alongside butterflies, such as the cinnabar moth and hummingbird hawk moth. The caterpillars of both moths and butterflies are food sources for birds, hedgehogs and amphibians, so they play a crucial role in any ecosystem.

It is important to think about all of the life stages of moths and butterflies when looking at your garden. Nectar sources for adult butterflies and moths, food sources for their caterpillars and safe places to lay eggs and overwinter are all crucial to helping these insects. Choose a variety of flowering plants to provide nectar for as many months as possible, starting with early spring flowers such as forget-me-nots and bluebells, through to summer flowering scabious and lavender, to late flowering verbena and sedums in autumn. Pots and window boxes are great too, so don’t be put off if you don’t have any flower beds! If you have a wall or fence you could grow climbing plants such a hops to provide nectar, food and shelter. Night-scented plants like honeysuckle, evening primrose and jasmine are great for night flying moths as they can find them easily in the dark!

As well as flowers, if you have a larger garden a native hedge, or just a few native trees provide shelter from predators and the leaves on which many moths and butterflies lay their eggs. Many species also lay eggs on nettles, brambles, dock and dandelions, so resist the urge to remove all of these ‘weeds’ but leave patches wild wherever possible. Nettles are also food plants for many caterpillars, including red admiral, small tortoiseshell butterflies and garden tiger moths. Plants like comfrey, bedstraw, birds-foot-trefoil and grasses, as well as trees such as blackthorn, hawthorn and oak will provide food for a wide range of caterpillars.

As a rule, wildlife likes untidy gardens, so leaving areas of uncut grass, plant debris and leaf litter is highly beneficial. These messy areas will be used by hibernation caterpillars of numerous moth and butterfly species. Some species overwinter in chrysalises so it is a good idea not to cut shrubs back until the spring if possible or have a really good check for chrysalises before you do.

To help moths, butterflies and other pollinators thrive and survive, sign up to take #ActionForInsects here. You'll get a free guide with lots of ideas of ways you can help from home or in your community.