The key and the lock – attracting butterflies and moths

You’ll know many insects use pollen, nectar, or both to feed themselves or their young. But did you know that not all insects can get food from all flowering plants? The mouth parts of insects vary in shape and size and this determines the types of plants they can use to get their food. Think of it as matching the right key to the right lock.

That’s why when planting wildlife or pollinator gardens, we need to use a combination of plants with different sizes and shapes of flowers. We want to be able to attract not only honeybees – which aren’t too fussy about where they get their food – but other insects such as butterflies, moths, wasps, flies and beetles. These insects are far more particular.

Helping out butterflies and moths

Let’s start with butterflies and moths. While their young feed on leaves for their energy – anything from the cabbage family is a real hit – the adults feed on nectar. Butterflies and moths have evolved to have a very thin feeding tube – or proboscis – that they use to suck nectar out of flowers. These fit nicely into flowers made up of small tubular flowers, often grouped together.

Favourites on the menu for butterflies and moths are:

  • Verbena bonariensis – tall, with wiry stems and purple flowers, it gives great structure to a border and can be used as a see-through screen. There’s also a shorter version, ideal for smaller gardens called V. bonariensis ‘Lollipop’. (Pictured above first left.)
  • Matthiola incana alba – this needs constant deadheading but is worth the effort as these beautifully scented white flowers attract early butterflies from late spring onwards before a lot of the flowers they love really get going. (Pictured above second left.)
  • Buddleja davidii – its common name is butterfly bush, which says it all really. It’s available in different varieties so you can pick a few to keep the butterflies and moths coming through summer and autumn. It can be a bit of a thug if not managed, so cut back after flowering and you’ll get new flowers on new growth each year. (Pictured above second from right.)
  • Hylotelephium spectabile – botanists have changed its name recently and you might know it as Sedum. This is a great variety that flowers in pink well into autumn and also looks lovely dusted with frost in winter.  (Pictured above far right.)
  • Nicotiana alata – also known as the tobacco plant, attracts larger visiting moths such as the Convolvulus Hawk Moth. Its lime/white colour shines out at night and it produces scent in the evening, too. It’s also very elegant, fairly easy to grow from seed yourself and prefers some shade.

Come back to my blog to find out how to encourage other insects to your garden. This is in the run up to BBC Gardeners’ World Live in June where I’ll be exhibiting my border: “Useful and beautiful.”

Image credits: BBC Gardeners' World and