@ Earthlore Insect Theme Park
Gardening for butterflies & bees
It has been said that flowers are food for the soul, but for many creatures including butterflies and bees, flowers are critical to their survival so in turn, critical for our survival!
The trend towards low maintenance gardening has resulted in more shrubs but less annuals and perennials. This is a disaster for nectar feeders, as annuals and perennials have a much longer flowering period, providing nectar and pollen over an extended season. This is but one contributing factor in the worldwide decline in the population of butterflies and bees.
Creating gardens with plenty of flowers is a simple first step in encouraging them back. At Earthlore we sell our own blends of wildflower seeds, one for butterflies and one for pollinators, though there are varieties in both mixes which will appeal equally to bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects. The next step is to consider the needs for their entire life-cycle.
While bees are happy with a variety of nectar rich flowers, for butterflies it is critical to have the host plant for their caterpillar stage nearby. This means knowing what the host plant is for the butterflies you are trying to attract. The caterpillar host plant differs for every individual species, with probably the most well-known being the swan plant for the Monarch butterfly, but there are many other beautiful native butterflies you can encourage into your garden. The host plants for our native Admiral butterflies are nettles, the Yellow Admiral preferring the common nettle while the Red Admiral prefers the native NZ tree nettle, Urtica ferox.
The tree nettle is not really a people-friendly plant, with many stands around the country having been removed, particularly where they pose a threat to livestock, contributing to the decline of this beautiful butterfly. While it may not be recommended to include the tree nettle in your home garden, leaving a patch of common nettles would be a good alternative. Several species of native Muehlenbeckia are the host plants to the caterpillars of NZ’s beautiful little Copper butterflies.
One is a rampant climber that can often be seen on roadsides romping over other trees and shrubs, and whilst providing a wonderful habitat for the caterpillars, is totally unsuited to the home garden. Luckily there are smaller, tamer alternatives in the family such as Muehlenbeckia astonii, a quirky, tangled shrub, height to 2 metres, or M. axillaris a low growing ground-cover. At Earthlore we have planted, and are still planting, large areas with all these varieties, and have been excited to see a significant rise in the local butterfly population.
As well as food, butterflies also require shelter from wind, a rock or wall to warm themselves, and an area of shallow muddy water to “puddle”. Puddling is done by the males only and involves absorbing minerals from clay to help with reproduction. A shallow saucer with clay and gravel in the bottom, kept filled with water will do the trick, while at the same time provide drinking water for bees.
With these basics provided for, attention could then be turned towards the eradication of wasps from the area. Wasps are voracious predators of butterflies, and any reduction in their population is beneficial, either by trapping individuals, or even better, finding and disposing of the nest, keeping the use of pesticides to a minimum. Butterflies and bees are very sensitive to chemicals and a spray which will kill “pests” will equally kill the insects we’re trying to protect. Even many organic sprays will still kill bees and butterflies.