Butterflies and moths

Butterflies are fantastic indicators that summer is here and bring a colourful presence to British gardens throughout our warmer months. Moths, on the other hand, are mostly nocturnal and so less noticeable, but still with plenty of character.

What do butterflies and moths do in my garden?

Butterflies provide a very important service in our gardens as they aid plant pollination. Most species can’t resist the sweet nectar held in many garden flowers and pollinate as they move from plant to plant searching for their next sugary meal. And not only that, they manage to look pretty while doing it too! Their characteristic fluttery flight pattern makes them a fantastic sight as they flit across our gardens, showing off their colourful wings.

Both moths and butterflies fill an important niche in our garden’s ecosystems, providing ‘meals on wings’ to all sorts of insectivorous wildlife. Birds, bats and small mammals all search out these protein filled treats so even the nocturnal moths must stay alert when on the move at night. Over the past 40 years, there has been a marked decrease in the number of Britain’s moths, with some species losing up to 99% of their population. Britain’s butterflies are suffering too with habitat loss being a key factor for both. Sugary plants like buddleia will give adult butterflies a great food source and for the moths, plants such as gooseberry bushes, currant plants or ragwort can be planted. We must continue to provide for these important insects as the pressures of global warming and habitat loss close in on them.

Burnet Companion Euclidia Glyphica mothWhy are butterflies so colourful?

Each butterfly wing is covered by hundreds of tiny scales which can only be seen under a microscope. Each scale has a pigment, called melanin, which gives them a black or brown colour. However, all the striking colours, like the reds, greens and blues, are created by the microstructure of the scales and the way that they reflect and scatter light as it passes through them.

What do butterflies and moths eat?

Adult butterflies mostly eat nectar, as do many species of moth, though some don’t eat at all in their adult stage. Other species will feed on dung, rotting fruit or decaying matter and some butterflies will be seen sipping up water from muddy puddles. Butterflies and moths both start life as larvae which often plough through all kinds of leafy plants like stinging nettles. As a result, some are seen as pests. Closer to home, some moth larvae feed on clothes made from natural fibres such as wool.

How do butterflies eat?

Butterflies need to get deep inside the flowers they feed on in order to extract the sweet nectar they produce. For this, they have developed a proboscis, which is a long, thin tube used to suck the juicy goodness out of flowers. They suck nectar up the tube by expanding and contracting a sac in their head. The proboscis is retractable and curls up when not being used. It is even separable into two separate parts so that it can be cleaned out and kept in good working order.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly on purple flowersHow do butterflies reproduce?

Many butterfly species are territorial and will protect an area, chasing off other butterflies, until a suitable female comes along. Some will pick a particular spot or perch to bask and wait for females to flutter by. In some species, mating takes place quickly but a few species have long courtship procedures, where they may put on a romantic flight display or spend a whole together in the undergrowth. Once the female is ready to lay her eggs, she will pick a suitable leaf and lay her eggs, sometimes hundreds at a time, onto its surface. Butterflies taste through receptors in their feet and this allows them to know that their offspring will be able to feed on the leaf which the eggs are laid on.

Butterfly facts
  • A butterflies life-cycle consists of four parts: egg, larva, pupa and adult (or imago)
  • Adult butterflies have four wings, six legs, two antennae, two compound eyes and a proboscis
  • When the butterfly emerges from its pupa, its wings are still wet. It must pump them up with blood and dry them out in the sun before it can fly away, leaving it an easy meal for predators
  • Some butterfly larvae are considered to be pests for the damage they can cause to crops and trees
  • Some butterfly species are migratory and travel great distances, such as the monarch butterfly which travels up to 3000 miles from Mexico to Northern USA and Canada. Certain British species fly all the way across the Channel from Europe to spend summer here
  • Many cultures throughout history have seen the butterfly as an important creature. The Japanese saw it as the personification of a person’s soul, whereas the Chinese see two butterflies flying together as a symbol of love
Moth facts
  • There are many more species of moth than butterfly throughout the world, with the UK containing more than 2,400 and over 150,000 known worldwide
  • Most moths are nocturnal but a few braver species emerge during the day
  • Moths are famously attracted to light sources at night but, despite some popular theories, we still don’t know exactly why
  • Silkworms, which are farmed to make silk, are moth larvae. They produce silk naturally to construct cocoons, which in nature are used to house the developing moth whilst it transforms into a fully grown adult

And finally… The study of butterflies and moths is called lepidoptery and the fear of them is called mottephobia

Cinnabar moth



Written by Luke Raymond
Laura Turner
Author: Laura Turner

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