Wednesday, 18 December 2013

2013: A great year for butterflies and moths

What a great year for butterflies and moths we had. The hot and dry summer provided ideal conditions for most butterflies and helped many butterfly species which had suffered in the cool and wet year 2012 to bounce back. According to the Big Butterfly Count which recorded butterfly numbers submitted by members of the public between 20 July - 11 August, Small White, Large White and Peacock were the most common butterfly species seen this year. Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Brimstone had huge population increases compared to 2012 with Peacock numbers increased by over 3500% and Small Tortoiseshell numbers by over 380%. Other commonly seen butterflies were Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Green-veined White and Ringlet.

Small Tortoiseshell butterflies had a comeback this year

Garden butterflies seemed to do especially well and on average 17 butterflies were seen in gardens during the Big Butterfly Count 2013 (compared to just 5 butterflies seen on average in gardens in 2012). On my allotment the most abundant butterfly species this year have been Small and Large White, Small Tortoiseshell, Gatekeeper and Meadow Brown.

Small Tortoiseshells liked the Yellow Ox-eye on my allotment
Many Small Whites have frequented my allotment this year

Butterfly Bush attracted many butterflies this summer
Butterflies love flowers from the daisy family (Asteraceae), the teasel family (Dipsacaceae), the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae) and the mint family (Lamiaceae) such as Wild Marjoram (Origanum vulgare), Willow-leaved Yellow Ox-eye (Buphtalmum salicifolium), Red Scabious (Knautia macedonica), Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), Viper`s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) and Butterfly Bush (Buddleja davidii). Look here for more ideas of what to plant for butterflies and other pollinators.

This Small Tortoiseshell collects nectar from a Red Scabious
Plant many different flowers to attract butterflies and moths

A pretty Elephant Hawk Moth
With all the excitement for our pretty butterflies we should not forget all the night-flying moth species which have also been abundant this year. Especially the Silver Y moth, a migratory moth species, populated our gardens in huge numbers this summer and you could see some of them even flying during the day. Adult moths like night-scented flowers such as Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis and others), ornamental Tobacco plants (Nicotiana spp.), Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum, L. japonica and others), Sweet rocket (Hesperis matronalis) and Night-scented Stock (Matthiola longipetala). So make sure you provide nectar plants for both butterflies and moths in your garden.

We rescued this Lime Hawk Moth from a garden pond this summer

Leave some nettles to grow in a sunny corner
But providing nectar plants for the adults is only half of the story; the larvae or caterpillars of butterflies and moths need food plants as well which are often completely different from the nectar plants the adults feed on. Think about leaving a patch of nettles in a sunny corner of your garden for Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral and Comma. You could also leave some grass in your garden to grow long to provide food for Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Skippers, Ringlet and Speckled Wood. Or plant some Cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis) and Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) for Orange Tip and Green-veined White. There are many more food plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars, some of them you will already have in your garden.

The Vapourer Moth caterpillar feeds on deciduous trees and shrubs
Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars like to eat nettles
Emperor Moth caterpillars feed on heather and bramble

Let`s hope 2014 will be another great year for butterflies and moths and make sure you take part in the Big Butterfly Count next summer.

Meadow Brown drinking nectar from Wild Marjoram flowers
Peacock butterflies were especially abundant this year
A Small Skipper on a Lavender flower
Many Small Tortoiseshell butterflies visited my allotment this year
Small Tortoiseshell on Willow-leaved Yellow Ox-eye flowers
A Holly Blue feasting on nectar from Strawberry flowers
Six-spot Burnet is a day-flying moth
Six-spot Burnet likes to visit Ragwort flowers
A Gatekeeper visits Ragwort flowers
Ragwort is a great plant for butterflies
A Small Heath on a Heath Spotted Orchid
A little Orange Tip clinging to a blade of grass
Garden butterflies had a great summer this year
A Brown Argus, looking the worse for wear after a busy summer
A female Common Blue
A Purple Hairstreak in our annual flower meadow in Prospect Park
A Meadow Brown resting on a Black Knapweed flower
A male Common Blue visits Purple Loosetrife flowers
We have also seen many Speckled Wood butterflies this summer
Black Knapweed is great for butterflies such as this Meadow Brown
A Green-veined White on a Virginia Stock flower
Speckled Wood caterpillars eat grass such as Cock`s Foot and False Brome
A Small Heath visits Small Scabious flowers
A Small Tortoiseshell
A Small Heath clinging to an Autumn Gentian
This White-letter Hairstreak was sitting on our fieldwork-car one morning

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Winter flowers for bees and other pollinators

Most native wildflowers stop flowering in winter and apart from the occasional dandelion or lawn daisy there is not a lot on offer for pollinators. To evade food-shortage and freezing temperatures in winter pollinators have evolved different strategies to survive (either as adult, egg, larvae or pupae) and it is unlikely you see a pollinator collecting nectar and pollen in winter in the countryside or in the north of the UK.
But the picture can look quite different in towns and cities, especially in the south of the UK. Milder winters and the planting of winter-flowering ornamental plants in gardens and parks have boosted numbers of winter-active pollinators, the most obvious of these the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) which maintains winter-colonies  mainly in the south of the UK.
A Bombus terrestris worker collecting nectar from Mahonia
Some young Bombus terrestris queens especially in towns and cities in the South do not hibernate anymore as their counterparts in the countryside and in the north of the UK would do but built and maintain colonies right through winter and take advantage of nectar and pollen-rich winter-flowering shrubs, perennials, spring bulbs and climbers in our gardens and parks.
A study published in 2010 has found that bees active during the winter can attain nectar and pollen foraging rates that match, and even surpass, those recorded during summer. Winter-active bumblebees do not have to compete for nectar and pollen with lots of other pollinators as they would do in summer, so nectar and pollen can be collected more efficiently.
If you see winter-active bumblebees in your garden or your local park the Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society (BWARS) would like to know about it. Please submit your sighting here.

A winter-active Bombus terrestris visiting Fatsia japonica flowers
A honeybee visiting Mahonia flowers
Bumblebees are not the only pollinators you can see in winter. Hoverflies and other flies can stay active in winter as well and you can see (among other hoverflies) the quite large honeybee-mimicking hoverflies Eristalis tenax and E. pertinax, flesh flies (Sarcophagidae) and green bottle flies sunbathing or nectar-collecting on the flowers. Wasps can also be seen right into December and honeybees will come out of their hives to forage at  temperatures around or above 10 C.

The hoverfly Eristalis tenax mimics a honeybee

You can help winter-active pollinators by planting winter-flowering perennials, shrubs, bulbs and climbers in your garden and at the same time enjoy some colour and scent (many winter flowers are scented) in the bleak winter months. Pansies and most other flowering winter bedding plants are of no use  for pollinators as the flowers are often not accessible or produce no nectar and pollen. But have a look at the list below for pollinator-friendly plants which will make your winter-active pollinators happy.

Plants with a long flowering season:

Abelia (Abelia x grandiflora) flowers from summer onwards, often until December if it is not too cold. Abelia is a small shrub up to 4 m tall and needs a sunny sheltered position.

Wallflower (Erysimum Bowles`s mauve) is a bushy evergreen perennial flowering most of the year with pretty purple flowers. The plant needs full sun and moderately fertile well drained soil.

Hebe (Veronica spp.) flowers from summer to autumn but some varieties can flower until winter such as "Midsummer Beauty", "Great Orme", "Gauntletii" and "Autumn Glory". The plants need a sunny and sheltered position as some varieties are not properly frost-hardy in cold winters.

Winter-flowering shrubs, trees and climbers:

Mahonia (Mahonia x media, Mahonia japonica, Mahonia oiwakensis ssp. lomariifolia and Mahonia aquifolium) starts flowering from November onwards (depending on the species) and the scented yellow nectar and pollen-rich flowers attract bumblebees, honeybees, hoverflies (and other flies) and wasps. Most winter-flowering Mahonia are large shrubs with often spiny leaves so need a bit of space to grow to their full potential. Plant in well-drained soil in a sunny position.

A Bombus terrestris queen foraging for nectar in December

Fatsia japonica (a relative of our native Ivy) is a broad tall shrubby plant which has large leathery leaves and clusters of creamy white flowers from November until January. Plant in a sheltered moist but well-drained position in full sun or partial shade.

A Bombus terrestris worker collecting pollen and nectar
Winter-flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissmima) is a deciduous evergreen shrub up to 2 m tall with very fragrant white flowers which open from December onwards. Grow in moist but well-drained soil in full sun or part shade.

The flowers are great for attracting winter-active bumblebees

A honeybee collecting pollen

Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is a large evergreen shrub with small bell-shaped white to pinkish flowers which open in November and December. The Strawberry tree needs a warm sheltered spot on well-drained soil in full sun.

Winter-flowering Clematis (Clematis cirrhosa) is an evergreen climber which needs a sunny sheltered position such as a warm house wall to thrive. The plant flowers from (depending on variety) November until February with large bell-shaped white, greenish or purple flowers which are loved by bumblebees.

A Bombus terrestris worker collects pollen

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is a deciduous shrub or small tree and has clusters of bright yellow  flowers which open from February to March. The red, (purple when ripe) cherry-like fruits are edible and are a bit tart to begin with but turn increasingly sweet and juicy when fully ripe. Plant in well-drained soil in sun or part shade.

Winter heath and Darley dale heath (Erica carnea and Erica x daleyensis) are small evergreen shrubs producing clusters of bell-shaped pink, purple or white flowers from December onwards. Plant in well-drained acidic soil in a sunny position.

Sweet box (Sarcococcus confusa) is a bushy evergreen shrub with glossy deep green leaves and inconspicuous white very sweetly scented flowers in January and February. Grow in humus-rich well-drained soil in part shade or shade.

A Bombus terrestris worker collecting pollen and nectar

Winter-flowering cherry trees (Prunus subhirtella and others) are often starting to flower from November onwards and flower right into spring with white to pink cherry flowers loved by bees. Grow in any moist but well-drained soil in full sun.


Other winter and early spring - flowering plants:

Cyclamen (Cyclamen coum) flowering in late winter and the autumn flowering Cyclamen hederifolium are tuberous perennials with nodding characteristically shaped flowers. The tubers are best planted in sun or part shade under deciduous trees. Both need humus-rich well-drained soil and protection from excessive summer moisture.

Cyclamen hederifolium
Cyclamen coum

Primrose (Primula vulgaris) is a rosette forming herbaceous perennial with scented yellow flowers (but many other colours available now as well). The flowers open in mild winters from December onwards. Plant in a sheltered position in sun or part shade.

A bee fly visiting a primrose flower
Pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) is a clump-forming perennial with finely dissected leaves and large nodding purple, pink or white bell-shaped flowers opening in March. The plants are a great food source for early-emerging bumblebee queens.

A Bombus terrestris queen visits a Pasque flower

Also have a look at our other blog posts for pollinator-friendly plants for early spring and spring/early summer.