The Ultimate Guide to Protecting Butterflies and How to Help Them Thrive in Your Garden 

By  Posted in the Gardener’s Corner – 27th May 2020.

To some, attracting butterflies into our gardens may seem like a slightly quirky rural fantasy.

And though it’s undeniably satisfying to sit in the garden and watch colourful butterflies go about their day, the fact is, they also desperately need our support.

This guide is for anyone that wants to see more butterflies in their garden. Whether you’re a keen gardener or are concerned about the dwindling butterfly population (or both) this article is for you.


Butterflies are one of the UK’s best-loved and most studied insects. There are around 17,500 species worldwide with approximately 60 frequently seen in the UK. Unfortunately, the numbers of these beautiful creatures have been in steady decline since the 1940s. This is mostly due to the destruction of their natural habitat and the effects of climate change. 

In fact, butterflies are so sensitive to climate change and other environmental factors that they are considered barometers of the state of the broader ecosystem. 

The Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing is the world’s largest butterfly with a wingspan about the size of a man’s hand. Contrast that with the Western Pygmy Blue, which has a wingspan about the size of a penny coin. 

Butterflies have two large compound eyes that allow them to scan all around for predators. On their heads are two antennae that act like sensors, detecting nectar and the pheromones of potential mates. Their wings are made from tiny scales that act as solar panels allowing the butterfly to heat up. 

Surprising Facts 

  • Butterflies taste through their feet. 
  • Their skeletons are on the outside. 
  • Some species of moth don’t have mouths and never eat. 
  • Egyptian frescoes dating back 3,500 years contain representations of butterflies. 
  • Butterflies are unable to fly if their body temperature drops below 86 degrees. 

The Decline of Butterflies 

Butterflies thrive in wildflower meadows, ancient woodlands and peat bogs. Unfortunately, many of these have been destroyed. This is a consequence of logging, industrial farming practices and the encroachment of their natural habitat by residential development. That combined with climate change and the increased use of pesticides has led to a 76% decline in some of our species over the last forty years. Source: The State if the UK’s Butterflies Report

Things have deteriorated so severely that the once common Small Tortoiseshell is now a rare sight and the High Brown Fritillary (among others) are at risk of extinction. 

But there is some good news; for instance, the Large Blue, which became extinct in the UK in 1979, has been reintroduced from Sweden. Their numbers are now steadily recovering thanks to the work of conservationists. 

The Lifecycle of Butterflies 

It all begins with a tiny egg laid by a female caterpillar. Within a few short days, a baby caterpillar starts to wriggle inside and is ready to hatch. It slowly eats its way out of the shell. 

Young caterpillars are non-stop eaters, consuming several thousand times their own weight before becoming butterflies. They grow rapidly, and as their size increases, they outgrow their skin shedding it several times. When the caterpillar wriggles free from its skin for the final time, the process of metamorphosis begins. The old skin becomes a camouflaged shell, hiding and protected the caterpillar from predators during the transformation. 

During the chrysalis stage, one of nature’s miracles occurs – the caterpillar breaks down and reforms itself into a beautiful butterfly. For most species, the transformation takes between 5 and 14 days. 

Once the transformation is complete, the butterfly is ready to emerge. It forces the chrysalis open and crawls out, moving its legs for the first time. 

It spreads its wings and pumps fluid into their veins to inflate them. When the wings are inflated, the fluid is replaced with air, leaving the wings hollow and light. Then it must wait, letting its body and wings dry in the sun. 

Once dry, the butterfly is ready for its maiden flight; and off it goes, to feed, find a mate, and reproduce, and the cycle begins again. 

Lifespan of Butterflies 

How long a butterfly lives is dependant on several factors. In general, the larger the butterfly, the longer its natural lifespan. Mourning Cloaks, Monarchs and some tropical Heliconians have a lifespan of around nine months. Contrast that with the Swallowtail whose lifespan is just 6 to 14 days. 

Butterflies are cold-blooded and need the sun. A sudden temperature drop can adversely impact their lifespan. Some species, like the Peacock and Red Admiral, will seek shelter and hibernate in colder months. Others like the Painted Lady will make the perilous journey back to Africa when the weather turns colder. 

Predators 

Caterpillars and butterflies have a precarious existence. Birds, bats, frogs and wasps are all-natural predators. Even cats and the occasional dog will kill and eat them. 

Butterflies are most at risk just after they leave the chrysalis. For a while, they are unable to fly and must wait for their wings to harden. 

Over millions of years of evolution, butterflies have developed various ways to protect themselves. Some species have ‘false antenna’ on their tails that trick predators into attacking their tail instead of their head. This gives the butterfly a far greater chance of escape and survival. 

Others, like the Swallowtail, emit a foul smell, and some, like the Monarch, are poisonous. Most poisonous butterflies have distinct bright-coloured wings. Birds and other predators quickly learn to avoid them; once poisoned – twice shy. 

The Peacock butterfly has evolved with two large spots on its wings. The spots resemble eyes that scare predators, tricking them into staying away. At rest, with their wings closed, they are dull and act as camouflage. 

It may come as a surprise, but the biggest threat to the butterfly is man. As the world population increases and our actions cause CO2 emissions to rise, changes in climate impact butterfly populations, putting some at risk of extinction. 

Couple that with the loss of much of their natural habitat due to intensive farming and residential development and it becomes obvious why their numbers are in decline. 

Help Save The Planet – One Butterfly at a Time

Although butterflies collect less pollen than bees, they travel much further. By doing so, they spread their pollen over much greater distances. This is good for our plants, creating genetic variations that make them more resilient to disease. 

5 Things You Can Do to Encourage Butterflies to Visit and Stay in Your Garden 

Bin the pesticides

By definition, pesticides, kill pests. This interferes with nature’s natural harmony and reduces the diversity of organisms in your garden. A pesticide-free garden is a garden teeming with life – including butterflies. 

Add a butterfly house

At night butterflies seek refuge in small crevices. A butterfly house offers such a place and encourages them to stay longer in your garden. Just make sure you place it in a sunny spot; butterflies need warmth. 

Help them hydrate

During dry spells, butterflies can struggle to find water. This can lead to dehydration and even death. Place a bowl of water in your garden and add some stones for them to sit on while they drink. 

Let it grow

Give your mower a break and leave a section of your garden to grow wild. Butterflies love wild gardens and the nectar-rich plants and flowers that grow in them. 

Just add nectar

With their natural habitat in decline, butterflies can struggle to find food. Planting nectar-rich flowers in your garden will attract butterflies. Plant in a sunny spot and choose a variety of flowers so that they bloom from spring to autumn. 

Our Top-Ten Plant Picks to Ensure Your Garden is ‘Aflutter’ With Butterflies. 

  1. Lavender (Lavandula) Monarch and Admirals, among others, love these pollen-rich lilac flowers. They grow well in sunny, sheltered spots. Make sure you plant in well-drained soil. 
  2. Erysimum (Bowles’s Mauve) – Well-tended, these beautiful evergreen perennials flower from spring into autumn, providing an invaluable source of nectar at times when food is scarce. 
  3. Sedum (Hylotelephium spectablie) – Another plant that flowers late providing a valuable source of food for butterflies in summer and autumn. 
  4. Red valerian (Centranthus ruber)These compact plants with trumpet-like flowers are best suited to dry and chalky soils. They flower early, giving a much need source of food for butterflies in spring. 
  5. Verbena (Verbena bonariensis)Verbena can grow to up to 2 metres in high. Their beautiful, purple flowers are rich in nectar, attracting butterflies to your garden right into autumn. 
  6. Hemp-agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum)Also, known as ‘Raspberries and Cream’, these hardy plants thrive in damp areas like woodlands and moist grasslands and will attract, among others, commas and red admirals. 
  7. Buddleja (Buddleja davidii)Butterflies love buddleja. These fast-growing shrubs can reach 3 metres in height. Between summer and autumn, they produce sprays of fragrant, nectar-rich flowers – a perfect addition to any wild garden. 
  8. Common knapweed (Centaurea nigra)These hardy, sun-loving perennials will grow up to 75cm and will attract several species of butterfly, including the meadow brown. Their thistle-like flowerheads bloom throughout summer.
  9. Allium Nutans (Siberian Chives) – These maintenance-free perennial herbs will produce beautiful purple flowers year after year. Plant in direct sunlight and cut back after the flowers have faded. If you’re lucky, you might then get a second growth. 
  10. Wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare)Although not the hardiest of plants, butterflies love their delicate, pink flowers. Unfortunately, unless protected, they are unlikely to survive a UK winter. For best results sow their seeds in autumn. 

Don’t have a garden? Don’t worry; you can still attract butterflies. Just add a few of the pollen-rich flowers listed above to a hanging basket or window box. And don’t forget a small bowl of water. 

How to Get Butterflies to Lay Their Eggs in Your Garden 

If you like to keep your garden well-tended, then the thought of letting nettles grow may seem strange. However, a patch of nettles is the perfect way to attract butterflies, including the Small Tortoiseshell, who like to lay their eggs on nettles. 

Others, like Large Whites, prefer to lay their eggs in cabbages. Be aware though, once caterpillars hatch they will munch through their leaves at a breathtaking pace. 

5 Great Products You Can Buy Right Now to Get Started

Caterpillar Grow Kit – Check price here

With the ‘Insect Lore Butterfly Garden Set,’ you can raise your own Painted Lady Butterflies from caterpillars within weeks. The kit comes with everything you need, including 3-5 caterpillars. Watch them grow before your eyes before becoming chrysalides. Once they do, simply transfer them to the supplied mesh habitat and watch them hatch into beautiful butterflies. Then spend a few days observing and feeding them before watching them fly off into the wild. A wonderful educational experience for all ages. 

The kit also comes with: 

  • 3D Butterfly stickers 
  • Seeds so you can grow flowers that attract wild butterflies 
  • A wind-up flying butterfly that will provide hours of entertainment. 
  • Complete instructions 

Live Caterpillars – Check prices here

Already own the Insect Lore Butterfly Garden Set? Re-experience the wonder of raising butterflies with a refill cup of caterpillars. The cup includes 3-5 caterpillars and all food they need to grow into beautiful Painted Lady Butterflies.

This product will help your children gain insight into the fascinating world of butterflies and ignite your children’s interest in the natural world.

Full instructions are included. 

Dewdrop Butterfly House – Check prices here 

The Dewdrop Butterfly House is perfect for attracting butterflies to your garden. Made from bamboo, this turquoise butterfly house looks great and will attract a wide variety of butterflies.

It’s also incredibly easy to install using the provided hanging rope; simply hook over a nail or door handle. It even comes with a two-year guarantee.

This is perfect for butterfly lovers, young and old. 

Butterfly Food – Check prices here 

Attract butterflies to your garden with this unique blend of food and vitamins. It’s easy to use, just mix with a teaspoon of water until dissolved and add to a butterfly feeder.

Perfect for spring and late summer when there are fewer flowers. Comes in 40g sachets and can be stored for up to eight weeks once opened. 

Butterfly Identification Book – Check prices here 

The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland by Jeremy Thomas 

Winner of the Natural World Book of the Year Award and the Guardian Nature Book of the Year. 

If you love butterflies, you’ll find this book difficult to put down. The author’s expertise and enthusiasm are contagious. The book contains comprehensive information on 71 different species of butterflies, including behaviour, conservation, lifecycle and histories.

It is also full of beautiful illustrations that make this book something you will return to again and again. 
The best butterfly book

6 Of The Best Websites About Butterflies 

Butterfly ConservationIf you would like to learn more about the effort to conserve our nations butterflies, this is the site for you. Packed full of information about the work that is being done and about how you can help, this site is an invaluable resource. 

UK Butterflies Want to get out and see our nations butterflies in the wild? Amongst a wealth of information about butterflies, the UK Butterflies website contains an interactive map displaying the locations of where you can spot various species throughout the UK. 

Learn About Butterflies Run by Adrian Hoskins, an entomologist, writer and photographer, this site is a comprehensive give to all things butterfly. Full of detailed information about species from around the world and their habitats, it is a site you’ll return to again and again. 

Butterfly Farm See hundreds of different species of butterfly all in one place. The butterfly farm in Stratford-upon-Avon is the perfect day out for the butterfly enthusiast. They even have a tropical rainforest greenhouse with waterfalls, tropical plants and over 250 different species of tropical butterfly. There are also some great butterfly photos on their website. 

The Butterfly Website One of the oldest butterfly websites around, it’s packed full of useful advice and interesting articles. Learn how to rear butterflies, cultivate a butterfly-friendly garden and much more. And make sure you check out the videos; they cover everything from metamorphosis to butterflies mating. 

Big Butterfly Count Help protect butterflies from extinction by taking part in a nationwide survey of butterfly numbers. Simply download the free butterfly chart and app and choose a spot in your garden or park and count butterflies for 15 minutes. The data will help in the understanding of the impact of climate change and identify species under threat. 

Further Reading

Gardening for Butterflies by The Xerces Society – Perfect for beginners or experts alike. This outstanding book is full of stunning photos and practical advice on how to attract these beautiful creatures into your garden. 

Covers: 

  • Information on some of the most endangered butterflies 
  • The best blooms for attracting butterflies 
  • Butterfly garden design 
  • Creating shelter 
  • Observation and conservation 
  • Tagging to monitor migration 
  • And much more 

Conclusion 

Butterflies have fascinated man for thousands of years. These kaleidoscopes of colour are one of natures greatest miracles, and it is imperative that we do everything we can to protect them. 

You may not have the power to stop climate change or to stem the tide of housing development, but you can still do your bit. So take the time to learn about these beautiful and delicate creatures and plant a patch of wild garden, full nectar-rich plants. By doing so, you not only get to enjoy them in your garden but also help ensure that our beloved butterflies are here for future generations to enjoy. 

Did you like our guide to protecting butterflies? Try exploring our wildlife and gardening corner for more awesome guides.