Conserving Butterfly Habitats

A Menu for Successful Butterfly Gardening – D. Keane

Butterfly habitats

Adelaide has a climate characterised by mild winters and hot, dry summers. Our local indigenous plants are best suited to these conditions, although many introduced species provide major benefits for butterfly and other insect needs. Both caterpillar food plants and butterfly nectar plants are required.

Importance of gardens

Gardens that provide for nature help to sustain our ever dwindling diversity and natural environments. If a garden is developed only for aesthetic enhancement and domestic needs it shows little attraction for the natural wildlife. So gardens that have a sense of naturalness are those that can provide best habitat.

Importance of bushland

The remaining bushland, grasslands, wetlands etc contain the menus for our gardens, we only need to duplicate what appears in nature; it is usually self-sustaining and requires little maintenance and cost to keep. Remnant bushland contains plants and animals that have evolved together over many thousands of years. Each plant and animal has a special function or niche. Some plants have formed symbiotic relationships with other plants, fungi and even animals. An example is the interaction that occurs between some butterflies, ants, and mistletoes in which each depends on the other for survival. Inner city and suburban vegetation remnants such as creeks, cemeteries etc should be protected and preserved if we are to keep our butterflies, birds and animals.

Butterfly and caterpillar

Flowering garden plants are the resting and re-fuelling stations for many butterflies. The nectar they provide is the butterfly’s main source of food after metamorphosis. The best way of attracting a variety of butterfly species to your garden is to provide a good range of plants from which they can harvest the nectar they need. Many people spray or kill caterpillars in the garden, not understanding that a butterfly transforms from a caterpillar. No caterpillars; no butterflies. No food plants; no butterflies, simple really!
Butterfly numbers will generally diminish through the winter period. You may notice occasional visits to your garden if suitable flowers are available, especially if your garden is in a warm, sheltered and protected location. The right gardens will also attract colourful day flying moths.

Tips on planning a butterfly garden – the main ingredients:

  • Most man-made gardens are artificial to some extent and the more we try to impose order and tidiness on our surroundings and use chemicals etc the more we are interfering with and destroying nature.
  • It is in the wildest corners of our gardens that we are most likely to see butterflies. To create a garden with ‘life’ and ‘habitat’ requires ‘natural thinking’. A well-designed butterfly garden will complement the patrolling, feeding, protection, resting and mating behaviours of butterflies, and result in a natural, sustainable, low-maintenance garden. The design should avoid large expanses of paving and areas that require constant manicuring, chemical control measures, excessive watering, or which are exposed to the elements. Places with leaf litter, bark, hollows and holes create homes for many invertebrates.
  • A butterfly garden attracts and caters for butterflies and their caterpillars. The gardener may need to consider location, aspect, climate, rainfall, shade, sun, and soil types. Clearly, plant selection is critical. A weedy corner often has the most invertebrate life.

Shade and seclusion

Shade trees are important and must be spaced apart so that small territories of both dappled light and open sunlight can be patrolled by the butterflies.

Open areas

Small open spaces with flowing edges should be incorporated into the design, as this will provide a natural look and function to the garden. Large open areas leave little protection from predators and increase the butterfly’s exposure to wind and harsh sunlight.

Warmth

Butterflies are cold-blooded and need to acquire warmth before flight is possible. Butterflies need to bask in warm sunny places, out of the wind. Placing rocks or paving stones in both sunny and shady areas can help them in this.

Diversity and colourful flowers

Herbaceous borders can provide a smorgasbord for butterflies if they contain nectar plants with small flowers, such as buddleias, daisies, verbenas, westringias, bursaria and plants with small tubular flowers for ease of feeding. It is important to keep many different kinds of nectar plants flowering over the typical butterfly flight periods of spring and summer.

Water

A shallow wet area in the garden can be an asset for butterflies, allowing them to ‘refuel’. They are especially useful if the water is shallow, with mud to drink from and stones to rest on. A damp area can also be used to grow caterpillar food plants.

Soil

Observing which plants and weeds already grow and thrive in your area may also give you clues to the character of your soil and what will grow well in it.

Plant selection – critical for food sources and for nectar.

When selecting plants for a butterfly garden, keep in mind that butterflies are initially attracted to the nectar flowers they use for their energy supply, but will only take up residence and breed in your garden if their caterpillar food plants are available. A butterfly will only lay its eggs on the specific plant its caterpillar will eat when it emerges.
Nectar for the adult butterfly is best provided by plants with small tubular flowers. Butterflies do not discriminate between native plant species and introduced or cultivated plants when foraging for nectar. If it suits their tastes they will use it.

Chemical use

It is important to design your garden and select plant species to fit the conditions of the site. Any plants that struggle to survive will succumb to disease, and will require unnatural control measures to sustain.

Further reading

For further detail refer to our book – Attracting Butterflies to your Garden (2016) Hunt, Grund, Keane & Forrest (Buy online).