A small selection of a large group. Butterflies and moths are visible in most gardens through the summer. Sadly, much so-called ‘butterfly gardening’ relates to encouraging the insects to visit and delight their many human admirers rather than assisting reproduction. Hence they arrive to nectar, not breed.
Buddleia (Buddleia davidii) or Ice Plant (Sedum spectabile), for example, are superb in acting as a magnet for butterflies, but they are useless for breeding purposes. Moreover, Buddleia poses a threat to native flora when it gets loose in the wild.
Ideally, such species as Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis), Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), Violets (Viola sp), Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), Vetches, meadow grasses and Common Nettles (Urtica dioica), all butterfly foodplants, should be planted. Only one problem – generally these are not plants householders would entertain putting in borders, and some would not be suited by such a location either.
To put this in perspective, a species which is commonly found in gardens because the foodplants are evident around homes is the Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus, wingspan 35mm). Exceptionally, these have two broods which eat the buds of different plants, Holly (Ilex aquifolium) in late spring and Ivy (Hedera helix) in the summer, though Gorse (Ulex spp) or Dogwood (Thelycrania sanguinea) can be used.
This use of widespread plants plus the fact that they are much more mobile than the other Blues ensures Holly Blues are in no danger, though they are ‘boom-and-bust’ butterflies, having high numbers some years followed by a temporary collapse. This seemingly is due to the activities of the parasitic wasp Listrodromus nycthemerus (12mm), an Ichneumon that uses Holly Blues as its only host but which, perhaps surprisingly given its striking appearance, appears not to be seen that frequently.
The Painted Lady (Cynthia cardui, wingspan 60mm) flies across from France every May, sometimes in large numbers, and spreads north across Britain. They mate and the resulting brood, with the caterpillars feeding mainly on thistles, emerges in August but they are unable to survive our winters. That may well alter with climatic changes.
In contrast, one butterfly which tends not to breed in gardens but is often seen flying through is the Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni, wingspan 60mm), which successfully overwinters as an adult. Brimstones, which can be seen as early as February given a sunny day and can be spotted for most of the year, use Purging Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) or Alder Buckthorn (Frangule alnus) as the foodplant. The males are brighter in colour than the females, which are more green than yellow, as the picture shows.
The most impressive goup of moths in size and in colour, particularly the larvae which can be decidedly bright, are the Hawk-moths, with getting on for 20 species residing here or migrating. The majority are nocturnal and the caterpillars feed on a wide range of trees and shrubs, some showing considerable adaptability.
Eyed Hawk-moth (Smerinthus ocellata, wingspan 75mm) and Lime Hawk-moth (Mimas tiliae, wingspan 65mm) are two which are pretty common in residential areas, emerging around May or June. The former has false eyes to startle potential predators and feeds on Apple, Willow and Laurel among others. The Lime Hawk-moth feeds on cultivated Maple (Acer spp) and Birch as well the tree after which it is named.
Unlike most moths, Plume Moths (Pterophorus sp) hold their wings at right angles to the abdomen when resting. They look much more delicate than they are. A selection of other moths seen in the garden, or which have flown in towards a light with the window(s) left open, is also shown above. These include the Dot (Melanchra persicariae), which has declined to the extent that it is now included in the Biodiversity Action Plan, the Apple-leaf Skeletonizer (Choreutis pariana), which can target commercial crops but often goes for Crab-apple, and the Silver-Y (Autographa gamma). The last-named migrates to Britain in large numbers most years. One handsome moth that came in through my bedroom window in 2012 was a Square-spot Rustic (Xestia xanthographa).
A small but, with the male, spectacular moth is the long-horned moth Nemophora degeerella (wingspan 20mm). The antennae in the male are prodigious and the species can look wonderful when swarming in the spring. The Lunar Underwing (Omphaloscelis lunosa, wingspan 35mm) varies tremendously in colour, with some much darker than the one illustrated on this page. This is a fairly common species in southern England.
The Horse-chestnut Leaf-miner (Cameraria ohridella) is a much smaller species, with a wingspan of only 8mm, but it makes up for lack of size with big publicity. This is almost entirely negative since its larvae feed on horse-chestnut leaves, frequently turning them almost completely brown. The species was first discovered in Macedonia in 1985 and has spread rapidly across Europe. However, since the damage to the leaves is done after the growing season is over, the moth is not harming the trees, even though the larvae's work looks unsightly.
Leaving the best among the moths until last, clearwings are an under-recorded group of 15 species of moth nationwide whose caterpillars for the most part feed just below the bark of deciduous trees and take anything from one to three years to reach maturity. All the species are day-flying and striking in appearance, resembling Hymenoptera.
Yellow-legged Clearwings (Synanthedon vespiformis, wingspan 20mm) have larvae that feed principally on Oak (Quercus sp) or Sweet Chestnut (Castania sativa). The pictured female turned up to nectar in the garden early in August 2006. The name vespiformis gives it away, since at first sight she might be assumed to be a wasp.
In 2011 a friend spotted another Clearwing on a Cotoneaster bush that was in full bloom and had significant numbers of Bumblebees, especially Bombus hypnorum, at work on it. The moth was a male Red-belted Clearwing (Synanthedon myopaeformis, wingspan 24mm), a southern species which flies from June to August and is associated with old fruit trees, notably apple, in which its larvae develop.
Finally, in 2013 a Currant Clearwing (Synanthedon tipuliformis, wingspan 18mm) appeared on an elm leaf up the garden. This is a relatively small species whose larvae feed on the shoots of redurrant and blackcurrant bushes. If you are lucky enough to come across any clearwings, make the most of it. The majority of the group, including the Yellow-legged, is designated as nationally scarce.
Like most moths, and unlike grasshoppers, bush-crickets are often active at night and the Oak Bush-cricket (Meconema thalassinum, 14mm), which lives on various trees, not just Oak, is often attracted into rooms by the lights. This is usually in August and catching them to put them outside is no easy matter since they are strong fliers.
By comparison, Speckled Bush-crickets (Leptophyes punctatissima, 15mm) are flightless and usually lurk among green vegetation where their colouring provides splendid camouflage.
Two scarcer members of the Orthoptera which have been in my garden recently are the Tawny Cockroach Ectobius pallidus, 10mm) and the Slender Groundhopper (Tetrix subulata, 9mm). In 2013 A nymph of the former turned up on the lintel of my shed, well above the expected height for a species which lives on the ground. Since then, there have been adults on the soil underneath heather in a sandy rockery nearby and this species is becoming commoner nationally than formerly. The same appears to be the case for the Dusky Cockroach (Ectobius lapponicus, 9mm). The Slender Groundhopper is usually linked with bare mud and short vegetation in damp, unshaded locations, so finding one in decaying wood by cherry laurel on the Greensand Ridge in 2014 was a bit of a surprise.
Many hoverflies are friends to gardeners due to invertebrate, especially aphid, predation. The Eristalis genus including Eristalis pertinax (12mm) mimics bees and its members are commonly seen on flower heads. Their larvae, known as rat-tailed maggots, require stagnant water, using telescopic ‘tails' to breathe.
Like many woodland hoverflies, Eupeodes luniger and Sphaerophoria scripta (12mm) take nectar in gardens providing the borders are well stocked. The same goes for Meliscaeva cinctella (10mm), whose larvae eat aphids, and Cheilosia scutellata (12mm), which is from the largest genus of hoverflies in Britain with getting on for 40 species. The huge red eyes of a male Chrysogaster solstitialis (10mm) make this one of the most striking of all hoverflies and Wild Carrot certainly drew them and various other species in during 2011. The red on Platycheirus albimanus (10mm) is under the abdomen, the pictured one was on Anagallis. Dasysyrphus tricinctus (13mm) is not a common visitor to the garden and Xylota segnis (12mm) is seen on flowers only infrequently, compost bins are likelier given that larvae of the species thrive in rotting vegetation. Syritta pipiens (10mm), with its notably swollen hind femurs, is also a species found around compost bins for the same reason. They more closely resemble solitary wasps than many species and fly in a similar fashion.
Merodon equestris (also known as the Greater Bulb Fly, 15mm) is less popular with gardeners. The species arrived in the UK, probably from Dutch bulbs, over a century ago and the larvae feed on Narcissus bulbs and related species, though the overall impact on any garden is negligible. One species of blow fly that looks like a hoverfly is Stomorhina lunata (12mm). This is a migrant that is not seen that often but there is a suspicion that it may be breeding in Britain.
There are hundreds of other types of fly to be found in gardens, many of them unwelcome to plant and vegetable growers, such as Bean Fly (Phorbia platura), Cabbage Root Fly (Delia brassicaea), Carrot Fly (Psila rosae), Celery-fly (Euleia heraclei) and Onion Fly (Delia antiqua). One which does no damage to plants but finds compost heaps a suitable place for its larvae to thrive is the striking Platystoma seminationis (8mm). They are not very active as adults and suited by shade, sometimes found crawling beneath leaves.
There are 339 species of Crane-fly (Tipula paludosa, 35mm) in Britain. The larvae of the commonest, popularly known as leatherjackets and a favoured food for the Crow family, can cause considerable damage to roots. Others live in logs or even water and although the greatest number are seen from late summer onwards some are present year round. Most are much smaller than the pictured female, who predictably, given her vulnerability at this stage, emerged just before dawn. Females have pointed abdomens, males much blunter ones.
Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.
In 2013 I published My Side of the Fence – the Natural History of a Surrey Garden. Details may be found, and orders placed, via this hyperlink My Side of the Fence. In November 2015 Surrey Wildlife Trust published the atlas Soldierflies, their allies and Conopidae of Surrey, jointly written by David Baldock and me. Details are on this web page: Atlas.