How To Attract Butterflies To Your Garden


The buddleia bushes in my garden have just come into flower. There are two of them and they’re not very big because I only planted them a few years ago. The reason I did so, despite the fact that they are a slightly unfashionable shrub, is to attract butterflies.

For some reason that I’ve never been able to work out the conical, purple flower heads act like a magnet attracting nectar-feeding butterflies as well as hoverflies, various species of bee and even some moths. This is so well known that an alternative name for the buddleia is ‘butterfly bush’.

Of course if you’re serious about wanting to attract insects into your garden just planting a couple of buddleias isn’t enough. They only flower for a few weeks in high summer and insects that feed on nectar and pollen need a succession of plants that flower from spring into late autumn. In fact for insects that hibernate, such as queen bumble bees and some butterflies, autumn is crucial because they’re trying to build up reserves of energy to last them through the winter and so is early spring when they emerge again.

Luckily gardeners also like a succession of flowers through the year. There are books and websites that give lists of plants that produce successions that suit both the butterflies and the gardener but there are also a few general principles. Single flower varieties are usually more reliable nectar sources. Flowers that give off a strong scent also tend to attract insects. Native plants, even cultivated varieties of native plants, are more attractive to  insects than exotic imports.

Some native hedgerow plants are very valuable. Elder flowers attract as many insects as buddleia but they do it much earlier in the summer. Before that hawthorn and, earlier again, blackthorn, provide vital blossom. The single most important native plant in the autumn is probably mature ivy which produces copious amounts of both nectar and pollen in September and October. It’s also the food plant for the second brood of caterpillars of the lovely holly blue butterfly. The first brood obviously feeds on holly and I have noticed that they seem just as happy with the variegated varieties as with the pure native plant.

A wild-flower meadow, even a very small one, provides a great food source for insects. And if your interest extends to beetles consider making a ‘bug hotel’ — three or four rotting logs in a shady corner is enough. A pond or even a water feature is very valuable. An established pond will eventually attract many species, such as dragonflies and damsel flies, which have an aquatic stage in their life cycle.

Mature trees are valuable to many insects, particularly native ones. This isn’t possible in every garden but efforts to preserve old trees in the neighbourhood are well worthwhile.




This article first appeared in The Irish Examiner but is more generally applicable than just to Ireland!