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Butterfly Gardens: Key Concepts

Butterflies are nice to have in a garden, they help to make it feel alive with colour and movement. They also become food for birds and carry out important pollination of plants.

To have butterflies in a garden, you have to meet the requirements of butterflies. In no particular order, the requirements are: host plants (for caterpillars), flowering plants (for adults) and suitable amounts of shade.

Host plants

These are plants that caterpillars feed on before they become butterflies. Many butterflies have specific host plants, while some common species have a variety of plants that they can feed on. Sometimes the host plants of butterflies are plants that we eat or use for decoration.

coromandel and pollinator
Coromandels are host plants for many urban butterflies

If you are preparing a butterfly garden, please tolerate a few chewed up leaves. Natural predators like wasps and birds can help to keep caterpillar numbers manageable, so preparing habitat for them too can help to bring a balance to your garden.

Flowering plants

butterfly feeding on wildflower nectar
Allowing wildflowers to grow in your garden is a good way to ensure a consistent source of nectar for butterflies

Plants which regularly flower are very attractive to butterflies. These flowers are not necessarily big, but they usually occur in clusters that the butterflies can walk across.

Wildflower patches are a simple way to make habitat for adult butterflies to feed, although edible plants such as Ulam raja and some ornamental flowers such as Lantana, Ixora and Saraca are attractive to butterflies as well.

butterfly feeding from a flower cluster
Clustered flowers are very attractive to butterflies

Shade

Butterflies are cold blooded creatures, so they control their body temperature by exposing themselves to sunlight. However, too much sunlight can be harmful to them. Many species of butterflies prefer shadier conditions where they can rest and cool off. Some forest butterflies never leave the shade of the forest, while open area butterflies can tolerate intense heat from the sun. 

Keeping these three things in mind will help make your garden a suitable habitat for butterflies. However, you can meet the requirements of some species of butterflies and still not get a desired species. This is because butterflies have to get to your garden, and usually, species that are more sensitive to urban environments may need pathways from forest patches that they can safely migrate through. So it is good to keep in mind that connectivity to forest patches is a good way to ensure that butterflies can establish themselves in home gardens.

If you want to experiment with these concepts, you can try planting a beginner butterfly garden that attracts very hardy urban butterflies.


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

See also

Wildflowers: Purple composites

wildflowers, goatweed, siam weed, cupid's shaving brush, tropical fleabane

Top (Left to right): Siam weed, Chromolaena odorata & Goat weed, Ageratum conyzoides

Bottom(Left to right): Cupid’s shaving brush, Emilia sonchifolia &
Tropical fleabane, Cyanthillium cinereum

Plants with small, fluffy purple or white flowers. It is found almost anywhere, favoured by beekeepers for the pollen and nectar it produces. It is grown to prevent Lalang growth but it can crowd out native plants. It is poisonous to vertebrates

Status: Least concern, invasive

Habit: Herbaceous

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators, ground cover

Pollinators:  Large bees, small bees, butterflies, flies, wasps

Soil: Sandy, loam, organic soils

Moisture: Well drained soils

Shade: Partial shade, no shade

Wildflowers: Monkey’s potato

wildflower, monkey potato, rimanji, plectranthus monostachyus

Monkey potato ~ Rimanji

Plectranthus monostachyus

An upright plant from the mint family. It has oval leaves that occur in pairs opposite each other, and at right angles to the following pairs. It produces small purple flowers at the top end of stems. The common name comes from nodules found on the roots of the mature plant.

Status: Least concern, Introduced (Tropical Africa)

Habit: Annual herbaceous

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators, ground cover, host plant for butterflies (Junonia orithya)

Pollinators:  Large bees, small bees, butterflies

Soil: Loam, clay, organic soils

Moisture: Well drained soils

Shade: Partial shade, no shade

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Urban Invertebrates: Centipedes and Millipedes

Centipedes and Millipedes

Millipedes have two pairs of legs per segment and move slowly. Centipedes have one pair of legs per segment. Millipedes protect themselves by coiling up and producing a yellowish poison. Centipedes have modified front legs that inject venom into their prey.

Millipedes

Ecological function: decomposer

Level in food chain: decomposer

Feeding behaviour: detritivore

Microhabitat:  usually found in rotting material.

Centipedes

Ecological function: predators

Level in food chain: secondary consumer 

Feeding behaviour: carnivore

Microhabitat:  usually found in rotting material.

Urban Invertebrates: Snails and slugs

Snails

These animals crawl on a single muscular foot. Most feed on plants, but sometimes they eat fungus and decomposing material. Snails help to break down decomposing material and become food for birds and other animals. Snails have shells, while slugs don’t.

Ecological function: herbivore, detritivore, decomposer

Level in food chain: primary consumer

Feeding behaviour: herbivore, fungivore, detritivore

Microhabitat: moist soil, under leaf litter

Urban Invertebrates: Flies, Midges and Mosquitoes

Flies

They usually have a round body and large eyes. They are important pollinators, decomposers and food items for insectivores.

Ecological function: pollinator, decomposer, scavenger

Level in food chain: secondary consumer

Feeding behaviour: coprophagous, necrophagous

Microhabitat: near rotting material

Midges

They can be mistaken for mosquitoes, but they do not suck blood. Their hind legs are not larger than the front legs. Midges do not have a long needle like mouth-part. They are important pollinators.

Ecological function: pollinators, decomposer, 

Level in food chain: secondary consumer

Feeding behaviour: carnivore, detritivore, nectivore, coprophagous

Microhabitat: damp areas with a lot of shade

Mosquitoes

Their hind legs are larger than their front legs. Females will feed on blood when they need to lay eggs, but male mosquitoes do not suck blood and are useful pollinators. Mosquitos are important prey to many insectivores.

Ecological function: parasite, pollinator

Level in food chain: secondary consumer

Feeding behaviour:  nectivore, blood feeder

Microhabitat: damp areas with a lot of shade

Urban Invertebrates: Bees, Wasps and Ants

Bees

They usually have a hairy, round body and their legs are usually hidden when flying. They only sting when provoked.

Ecological function: pollinators

Level in food chain: primary consumer

Feeding behaviour: nectarivore

Microhabitat: sometimes live in colonies in hives

Wasps

The body is slender and narrow-waisted, with little to no hair. Their legs hang down when flying. They only sting when provoked.

Ecological function: prey-predator relationship, pollinator

Level in food chain: secondary consumer

Feeding behaviour: nectarivore, carnivore

Microhabitat: sometimes live in colonies in grounds or in roof spaces

Ants

They have a thin waist and are usually wingless, sometimes divided into smaller workers and larger soldiers. ‘Ant bites’ are usually the acidic stings of ants.

Ecological function: decomposer, scavenger

Level in food chain: primary and secondary consumer

Feeding behaviour: detritovore, omnivore

Microhabitat: almost everywhere