Butterfly Gardening in Whitstable

by Steve Andrews

The wants and needs of butterflies are much the same all over the world.

Whitstable is on the Thames Estuary. This means it is an ideal location for receiving migrant butterfly species that have crossed the Channel. This would apply to migrant moth species too.

The Painted Lady is a commonly sighted butterfly in the UK and many of the ones seen here are butterflies that have arrived from overseas. Unlike humans, who have to go through security checks and satisfy bureaucratic rules, butterflies can simply arrive unannounced. Sometimes they do this in very large numbers and at other times far fewer reach British shores. Sometimes species like the spectacular Monarch Butterfly get to the UK, but this is a very rare migrant indeed and any attempt it makes to colonise a new British territory is doomed to failure. You see, if this species does get to Britain it cannot reproduce successfully because the food plant it needs for its caterpillars is missing. Monarchs need any of the Milkweed species. Their caterpillars cannot eat anything else.

This is the case with most types of butterfly larvae, they need a specific diet, they need specific plants, and a starving caterpillar will die rather than eat the leaves of the wrong plant. This means we can do a lot to encourage and help butterflies by not only providing colourful flowers that can provide nectar for adult butterflies, but we can grow plants that the female insects might be looking for, on which to lay their eggs. This is what butterfly gardening is about, choosing pretty flowers that we like and butterflies like: flowers like the Cosmo, the Zinnia, Michaelmas Daisies, and Verbenas are all great examples, as well as flowering shrubs like the Buddleia, which is aptly also known as the Butterfly Bush. We also need to grow plants for the caterpillars, and if we do this, we may be rewarded with a mini-colony of a butterfly species using our garden year after year.

Swallowtail butterfly on Steve’s hand. Photo by Steve Andrews.

Colourful Nasturtiums with their rounded leaves are favourites of the Small and Large White butterflies, and a welcome alternative to a diet of Cabbage, Cauliflower and Broccoli that cause vegetable gardeners to view these butterflies as pests. Many of the other food plants for caterpillars are often thought of as weeds but this is where creating a part of your garden as a wildlife haven is the way to go. Stinging Nettles provide food for the Peacock, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Painted Lady and Comma butterflies. The Small Tortoiseshell was until recently one of the most common species to be seen flying in Britain but it has suffered a serious decline, as have so many more types of butterfly. This is why they really do need our help.

Growing Holly as a hedge or small tree is going to tempt the Holly Blue, and this pretty little species also lays its eggs on Ivy. The Common Blue’s caterpillar will eat Bird’s-foot Trefoil so if you have this golden-yellow-flowered plant growing in patches on your lawn and refrain from mowing it very short, you may find this butterfly flitting around your garden.

You will probably be surprised to discover that there are many butterflies with caterpillars that eat grass; but not short lawn grass, they need long grass blades. The Meadow Brown, the Gatekeeper, Grayling, Wall Brown, Speckled Wood and Marbled White all come into this category. Leaving a patch of long grass to grow is a great help for any of these species. The beautiful Orange Tip that can be seen in late spring mainly uses the Cuckoo Flower, a wild flower that will grow in lawns and grassy places, and the Garlic Mustard, a hedgerow plant that we can also eat. It has a pleasant garlic flavour, hence its name.

Painted Lady butterfly. Photo by Steve Andrews

The Painted Lady is a very successful butterfly, found in most parts of the world, not only because it migrates from one country to another, but because its caterpillar can eat a very wide range of food plants. Besides Stinging Nettles, this species can feed on thistles, mallows, Hollyhocks, Viper’s Bugloss, and other species in the Echium genus. The Comma got its moniker because of a distinctive white comma-like mark on the underside of its wings, which are otherwise brown and mottled with ragged edges to look just like dead leaves. It has a caterpillar that eats a wide range of plants too. As well as Nettles, it will eat Hops, Gooseberry, Currants, Elm and Willow.

Why not try helping the butterflies where you live by incorporating some butterfly-friendly features into your garden? If you don’t have a garden, you can still help butterfly conservation by taking part in annual butterfly count surveys that are organised by organisations such as Butterfly Conservation. The basic idea is that you go out in your garden or on a local walk and note down all the species you see, and how many of each type you encounter, then pass on the results. Butterfly experts have been working over the years in monitoring the numbers of different species, and keeping tracks on their distribution. This is where members of the public can be very helpful by sending in their findings. It has been found that Climate Change is causing some types of insect to increase their range, whilst others that cannot adapt so fast are declining.


Death’s Head Hawk-moth. Photo by Steve Andrews

Where there are butterflies, at night there will be moths, though there are day-flying species as well, some of which are so colourful they get mistaken for butterflies. One such moth is the red and black Cinnabar Moth. It has brightly coloured caterpillars. They are banded in black on orange, and are a conspicuous sight on Ragwort and Groundsel. They will demolish these weeds so are a gardener’s friend. Nevertheless, sadly, over recent years, this species has declined in numbers, as has the Garden Tiger Moth, a large moth with exotic looking chocolate brown and creamy white patterned forewings and orange dotted with blue hindwings. The caterpillars of the garden Tiger Moth are known as “Woolly Bears,” due to their extremely furry bodies. They used to be very common all over the UK but have suffered a dramatic decline. These caterpillars eat a variety of weeds, such as Stinging Nettle and Dandelions, so their disappearance is something of a mystery because there is no shortage of food-plants for them.

Being on the south coast of England means that Whitstable is a great place for finding migrant moths, just like it is for migrant butterflies. Two spectacular species that arrive in southern England most years are the Hummingbird Hawk-moth and the Convolvulus Hawk-moth. The former species hovers while collecting nectar and often gets mistaken for the exotic bird it is named after. The Convolvulus Hawk-moth is a much larger moth, as are most types of hawk-moths.

Native species to look out for include:-

  • the Elephant Hawk-moth with its fuschia-pink and olive-green wings and weird-looking caterpillar with large eye spots on its head;
  • the Eyed Hawk-moth, with eye-spots on its hindwings and a large green caterpillar that feeds on Apple trees as well as Sallow and Poplar;
  • the Poplar Hawk-moth, somewhat similar to the Eyed Hawk but minus the eye-spots;
  • the Lime Hawk-moth, a pretty species with wings mottled in shades of green, brick-red and olive.

All the Hawk-moths have big caterpillars that have short spikes on their tail-ends.

There is one more species I most certainly cannot leave out here, and that is the Death’s Head Hawk-moth (see above). It is very big, has a curious marking like a human skull on the back of its thorax, squeaks when alarmed, and robs beehives for honey. Not surprisingly this rare migrant hawk-moth has a number of superstitions surrounding it, and due to its scary looks it made an appearance in publicity for the Silence of the Lambs.

The rules for attracting butterflies to your garden apply to moths, and if you want to ‘cheat’ and make sure of seeing more of a species on your local patch, then Worldwide Butterflies, may well be able to help. This company was going when I was a boy, and I used to get Stick Insects and exotic Silk Moths from them. Nowadays they supply a vast range of exotic butterflies and moths, as well as British and European species. They often do special offers with species such as the Small Tortoiseshell and the Garden Tiger Moth, with the advice that you can help increase their numbers by taking advantage of these deals. Worldwide Butterflies have many very rare species too, including butterflies that are now extinct in the UK, like the Black-veined White and the Large Copper. Their website is a great source of information, and they also supply books on the subject of butterflies and moths, which is where I began my education as a child, leafing through the pages of insect books learning all about the fascinating world of these colourful flying creatures.

Steve Andrews

Also known as The Green Bard, Bard of Ely, and Green Beard, Steve is an iconic figure who has featured in books, on radio and television, and in film. He is, in his own right, a musician, a writer, a lifelong environmental activist, a sometime television presenter, a poet, a Britain’s Got Talent feature act, and a champion fighting against climate change, the destruction of trees, and plastic pollution. His power animal is the butterfly, several species of which Steve rears and nurtures in his spare time. Steve is based in the UK and Portugal, but has fans all over the world. https://www.bardofely.org/

More on Steve Andrews by CJ Stone:-


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