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DESIGNING FOR BUTTERFLIES
WILD WAY DIARY: 14/07/23
More than flowers I want butterflies in our garden, they were actually one of the starting points of our planting design. And this week I was excited to notice the first comma butterfly of the year, Polygonia c-album, down on the allotment. It reminded me that different insects will be seen at different times of the year depending on their lifecycle and that includes butterfly species.
I’d been hoping to see a comma butterfly because I love the shape of the jaggedy wings, they look like a fallen leaf when closed. The strange “c-album” part of the scientific name refers to a white C clearly visible on the underside of each wing.
Speaking of undersides of wings, you can tell a large skipper butterfly from small ones by the white squares on the underside of their wings.
Across our farm large skipper and meadow brown butterflies were among the earliest to appear, and they appeared in prolific numbers! I’ve been helping meadow browns out of the polytunnel on hot days when the doors are kept open and they fly in.
The occasional red admiral have been flying about too, which have the most glamorous Hollywood scientific name of Vanessa atalanta.
As well as the comma, this week I’ve seen my first large white, Pieris brassicae, small tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae, and ringlet, Aphantopus hyperantus.
Large and small white butterflies are incredibly beautiful but have been discredited over the years by the gardening world because their caterpillars eat brassicas. Yet their fluttering over the garden is among the most conspicuous and very welcome here. Blossom blowing in the wind.
Peacock butterfly caterpillars are really fattening up now, I watched as a sparrow picked one off a patch of nettles on our allotment before bashing it on a piece of wood to kill it and eat it. The caterpillars had almost entirely devoured the patch of nettles they were on, so I moved a number of them to a new patch. It made me wonder if, over time, a large enough population of butterflies and moths could be encouraged to keep nettles at bay.
Ringlet butterflies, Aphantopus hyperantus, have very distinctive yellow and black rings with white dots on their underwings. Whereas the meadow brown, Maniola jurtina, shown below, has one marking on each wing.
The quantity of butterflies so far this year, especially meadow brown and large skipper, has been quite extraordinary. Perhaps it was like this in our first two summers here but I don’t think so. It could be the warm and dry start to this summer, or conditions last summer, or a change we’ve made to the management of the farm.
Often people look to flowers to attract butterflies, which they do use for nectar, but if you want more butterflies you first have to feed the caterpillars. Caterpillars of many butterflies eat and overwinter in long wild grasses, cutting back everything before winter removes their home and reduces the number of butterflies next year. This is why our garden includes wild grasses like Deschampsia cespitosa and stinging nettles, and why we leave most plants to stand over winter instead of cutting back.
Have you heard? I’ve started turning my new long read posts into audio podcasts, in case you’d prefer to listen to them. The first is the Bridge to the Night Sky, the start of an exploration of the concepts going into our new garden in Yorkshire.