Insects and Butterflies in the Garden

There are still plenty of insects and butterflies in the garden at the moment enjoying the nectar and Flowering Shrubpollen from late summer flowering shrubs and perennials.

Our white Buddleja davidii has been very popular with Red Admiral and Peacock butterflies this year and I have also seen Hummingbird Hawk Moths buzzing back and forth – they really do look like miniature Hummingbirds and are often mistaken for such but unfortunately Britain is too far north for these beautiful birds unless they are raised in tropical greenhouses.

Lots of other moths are in evidence including Elephant Hawk Moths and their bizarre, somber looking caterpillars which grow quite big before pupating and turning into adults wearing their jazzy party dresses of pink and lime green. Britain is blessed with a huge number of moths and I am always mindful of this when I am planning to purchase food plants for wildlife. Most moths are out and about foraging for nectar in the evenings and at night, so they are attracted to night scented plants such as Honeysuckle, Jasmine, Tobacco Plants (Nicotiana) and Evening Primrose. Many of these double up as great bee plants and the Japanese Honeysuckle ‘Cream Cascade’ in our garden is always a hub of activity when in flower through the day as well as late into the night. The summer flowering Jasmine (J. officinale) has a powerful scent which is especially detectable in the evenings and the plant has grown really strongly over the last couple of summers, producing plenty of clusters of glistening flat flowers for months. It is concentrating on scaling a high part of our Privet hedge near the compost heaps which may have something to do with the rate of growth and the healthy look to the leaves!

Butterflies have been far fewer in variety and numbers. Last year I counted 13 species but this year only a handful have been seen, with Red Admirals by far the most prevalent. Small Tortoiseshells have been counted on the fingers of one hand, along with a few Commas and Peacocks. Even the Large ‘Cabbage’ Whites have been fewer and the highlight of my butterfly season so far has been the sighting of a Brimstone at the beginning of August on a friends organic farm. I had not seen one for years!

There is still hope through September that I will see more species, tempted by the late flowers that they love so much. Caryopteris and Hebes are two of their favourite flowering shrubs and there are plenty of perennials still to come. Sedums are a favourite and their flat heads of flowers make perfect landing pads that these creatures can walk over as they feed. Verbena bonariensis and the newer variety ‘Lollipop’ which only grows to 75cm (30 inches) high are always popular with bees and flower for months from the end of May until well into the autumn.

A week ago, we visited the National Dahlia collection near Penzance in Cornwall and the difference between planting single and double blooms to attract bees was bought in to sharp focus. Dahlias of all shapes and colours are planted here in a sheltered field – from the spiky ‘cactus’ doubles and perfectly round pom-poms to the simple single blooms and collarette types with their ruff of inner petals surrounding the central disc which holds the pollen.

Beautiful though they were, the complicated doubles attracted no insects but when we walked the rows of the collarette and single flowered varieties, the air was full of bees collecting pollen. Double flowers are more difficult for insects to navigate and tend to hold much less pollen which is why many are sterile and bear few if any seeds – a good point to remember when planting for insects.

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