Butterfly Gardens

from Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Dr Cyren Wong Zhi Hoong

Dr. Cyren is an ecological anthropologist and ethnozoologist who studies the relationship between human society and the natural environment. He is also a lepidopterist who specialises in the study of butterflies & moths. One of the chapters of his PhD research focuses on the butterfly naming and collection practices among Semai people living in Gopeng and Cameron Highland.

Why Butterflies?

Butterflies are a suitable flagship species for insect conservation because the adults share resources with a wide range of other beneficial insects such as flower flies and bees. As generalist feeders, many of the flowering plants for adult butterflies are also suitable to sustain populations of other pollinating insects.

Besides, both adult and larval stages of butterflies are very important food sources for a wide variety of animals including birds, reptiles and amphibians.

Also, many butterflies, especially the urban ones, are large, brightly coloured and easily recognisable. These characteristics make them prime candidates for simple observation. From an educational perspective, butterflies possess a strong cross-cultural appeal, across relatively broad demographics.

Another reason is butterflies are unable to cause physical harm through transmission of diseases, biting or stinging, which makes them excellent candidates for community science projects and amateur studies.

Plant Selection

To create a butterfly garden, the first thing you need to do is to make a distinction between larval-host plant and the adult-food plant. Larval-host plants are species of plants that are necessary for butterflies to complete their larval stages whereas the adult-food plants are flowers that butterflies prefer to feed on.

Food plants for adult butterflies

The great thing about butterfly gardening is that the different life stages of butterflies have different needs. You can partition your garden or create a segregated area in such a way that you have plots of more attractive flowers that butterflies can fly around, and put your larval-host plants somewhere hidden if you worry the site would be full of caterpillars or the leaves would be full of holes.

Fortunately, most butterflies are generalists. It is not that difficult to choose adult-food plants for the butterflies. Of course, there would be certain flowers that butterflies are more attracted to than others. These are flowers that meet the CEWL criteria.

  • C – cluster flowers
  • E – exposed nectaries
  • W – warmer colours
  • L – longer stamens

Cluster flowers

If you observe butterfly-attracting plants, one of their common characteristics is that they have flowers that bloom in a clustered pattern. These are plants where multiple flowers are grouped together on a single stalk. For example, flowers of Lantana, Ixora, Bauhinia, Saraca and Buddleia.

Exposed nectaries

Butterflies also prefer flowers with exposed nectaries. Flowers that have short nectar receptacles such as those of the family Asteraceae, i.e. daisy or daisy-like flowers, are usually excellent choices because most of them possess bright colours and short nectar receptacles. They are easy for butterflies to access.

Some people ask whether they can grow morning glory and butterfly pea to attract butterflies. The fact is butterflies do visit them but as a general rule, many tube-shaped flowers tend to be more frequently visited by bees compared to butterflies as their receptacle are too deep for many small or medium-sized butterflies. Therefore, they don’t prefer these flowers although they still visit them when there is a shortage of food sources.

Warm colours

In terms of colours, butterflies tend to be more attracted to colours on the warmer end of the spectrum as opposed to bees that tend to be attracted to colours on the cooler end of the spectrum. Butterflies tend to go for flowers that are in shades of pinks, reds, yellows, oranges, or even white. In fact, if you are in the forest and you want to see butterflies, you can lay down a piece of red cloth on the forest floor. You will find that many species of butterflies even the ones that usually just stay at the upper canopy level descend to investigate when they see the red colour.

Long stamens

If you are fortunate enough to notice larger butterflies in your area such as the swallowtail or birdwing butterflies, and you wish to attract more of these butterflies to your garden, you can also try to grow plants with longer stamens. The stamens and the anther are parts of the flower that stick out where the pollen is attached. Examples of flowers are Hibiscus, Clerodendrum, the pagoda flower, and Caesalpinia.

Larval-host plant

The other thing you need to know is how to select the larval-host plants. The adult-food plants and the larval-host plants are equally important if you want to sustain a stable population of butterflies.

It is definitely not enough to just grow flowers without a reliable food source (for their young) that they can breed on. The butterflies will not be able to sustain themselves in the long run and you will eventually see less and less butterflies as time goes by.

Try to observe and identify the butterflies that you see in your surrounding area and the plants that they visit, since butterflies are also found near plants that they reproduce on. You can do a bit of research on their interactions with the local flora. Look at the plants where butterflies stop and lay eggs. These plants are the first plants that you should be cultivating.

Unfortunately, many of these larval-host plants are what we consider weeds. You might not be able to buy the plants at a nursery. On the other hand, because many of them are weeds, upon discovering a larval host plant, you could just dig it up and bring it home.

Community-Assembly Approach

The thing to remember is that we are trying to build a sustainable habitat for a community of local butterflies and other pollinators. In nature, every species is a member of a community. It goes through a series of checks, balances and filters that ultimately decide whether the species is capable of adapting and integrating with other plants and animals that are already in that area. This process is what ecologists know as community-assembly theory.

In our urban gardens, every stage of this selection that would otherwise be driven by environment and inter-species interaction, is driven by us since we decide the plants to be grown and propagated in our gardens.

By controlling the species composition of plants to be grown, we also control what animals are capable of living and thriving in the spaces that we create. Therefore, when you are creating your butterfly garden, it is useful to think of it as living experiment and you get to decide what the final community structure would look like.

Dr Cyren’s advice is to always start small. Try to pay attention to not only how well your plants are growing in your garden but also whether the plants are attracting local butterflies or any other pollinators. If they are, you can add more of these plants in your garden. However, if the plants are not doing well or more importantly, if none of the local butterflies are interacting with them, then maybe it is time to get rid of the plants and try something else.

Challenges

The mindset that many people have today, especially if they are not wildlife enthusiasts or environmentalists, is that the human environment needs to be carefully designed, manicured and sterile. Even in these so-called green cities and communities, we tend to witness spaces with closely manicured lawns, and an abundance of non-native ornamental plants which are not really of any use to local wildlife.

You can see the beautiful green walls and trees. But, if you look closer, there is no sign of fauna interaction. Birds are not building nests in the trees. There is no insect munching at the leaves and no flower attracting butterflies and bees. There is very little space in our urban communities to set aside and allow nature to thrive, to run wild, which is precisely what the beneficial animals need.

The other important thing to consider is to try and just allow things to go a little wild. In fact, a lot of grasses and wild flowers that are very weedy or ‘semak’ to us play an important role and are irreplaceable. We cannot swap them out for ornamental ones as they have the vital position in the life cycle of countless species of native animals.


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

You can watch the entire session here.

Butterflies: Blue pansy

blue pansy, butterfly

Blue pansy

Junonia orithya

Unlike most butterflies this species prefers open fields, often perching on grass between short low flights. This butterfly has intricate patterns of velvet brown, sky blue, pale yellow and orange eyespots on its upperside. Its underside is a mix of pale yellow, brown and orange eyespots.

Food items: Nectar (as butterfly), host plant (as caterpillar)

Host plants: Sweet potato (Ipomea batatas), Justicia procumbens, Asystasia gangetica, Plantago, Striga, Thunbergia alata

Microhabitat: Gardens, roadsides and open areas

Ecological Function: Pollinator

Food chain level: Primary consumer

Dispersal: Likely it has limited dispersal range, but it can move through open areas and road verges

Blue pansy (Junonia orithya), female
Blue pansy (Junonia orithya), female (underside)
Blue pansy (Junonia orithya), male (underside)

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Butterflies: Tiny grass blue

tiny grass blue, butterfly

Tiny grass blue

Zizula hylax

A very small butterfly, often seen feeding on low wildflowers. It looks like other small blue butterflies, but is slightly duller blue or occasionally violet from certain angles. The patterns of black dots and gray bars are used to identify this species. Its host plants are a variety of common wildflowers.

Food items: Nectar (as butterfly), host plant (as caterpillar)

Host plants: Acanthaceae, Justicia procumbens, Asystasia gangetica, Ruellia repens, Hemigraphis reptans

Microhabitat: Gardens, roadsides and open areas

Ecological Function: Pollinator

Food chain level: Primary consumer

Dispersal: Likely it has limited dispersal range, but it can move through open areas and road verges

Tiny grass blue (Zizula hylax), female
Tiny grass blue (Zizula hylax), male
(underside)
Tiny grass blue (Zizula hylax), female
(underside)

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Butterflies: Common grass blue

common grass blue butterfly

Common grass blue

Zizina otis lampa

Very common but often unnoticed because of their size, these tiny butterflies are found in almost all green spaces and road verges. It looks like a dull gray butterfly from a distance, but its wings open to reveal reflective deep blue. This species can be differentiated from similar species based on the pattern of dots on the underside of the wings. Its host plants are low growing Desmodium and Semalu plants that are commonly found between grass in fields.

Food items: Nectar (as butterfly), host plant (as caterpillar)

Host plants: Desmodium, Mimosa pudica and Alysicarpus vaginalis

Microhabitat: Gardens, roadsides and open areas

Ecological Function: Pollinator

Food chain level: Primary consumer

Dispersal: Likely it has limited dispersal range, but it can move through open areas and road verges

Common grass blue (Zizina otis), female
(underside)

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Butterflies: Peacock pansy

peacock pansy, butterfly

Peacock pansy

Junonia almana

The underside of this butterfly is an unremarkable pale tan traversed with dark brown lines and dotted with a few black and yellow eye spots. The uppersides of the wings are a rich orange, with eye spots that are violet and deep red. Its caterpillars are known to feed on a wide variety of wildflowers and the adults can be seen in short fast flights within wildflower patches.

Food items: Nectar (as butterfly), host plant (as caterpillar)

Host plants: Mimosa pudica and Acanthaceae

Microhabitat: Gardens, roadsides and open areas

Ecological Function: Pollinator

Food chain level: Primary consumer

Dispersal: Likely it has limited dispersal range, but it can move through open areas and road verges

Peacock pansy (Junonia almana)
(underside)

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Butterflies: Tawny coster

tawny coster, butterfly

Tawny coster

Acraea terpiscore

A bright orange butterfly with black spots, its hindwing fringed with a white and black border. It flies slow and not very high. Originating from India, this butterfly has naturally expanded its range since the 90’s to include Peninsular Malaysia. Now it is one of the most common butterfly species in cities. Its host plant is primarily passionflowers, but other hosts have also been reported. Adults are commonly seen feeding on sunflower family wildflowers.

Food items: Nectar (as butterfly), host plant (as caterpillar)

Host plants: Passiflora suberosa, Passiflora foetida

Microhabitat: Gardens, roadsides, secondary growth

Ecological Function: Pollinator

Food chain level: Primary consumer

Dispersal: Likely it has limited dispersal range, but it can move through open areas and road verges

Tawny coster (Acraea terpiscore)
(underside)

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Butterflies: Common four ring

common four ring butterfly

Common four ring

Ypthima huebneri

These low flying butterflies are a dull brown gray, but they are adorned with black and yellow eye spots that are used to confuse predators. It looks almost the same as the common three ring, but instead of three eye spots on the underside hind wing, it has four. Like other ring butterflies, its host plant is grasses.

Food items: Nectar (as butterfly), host plant (as caterpillar)

Host plants: Gramineae

Microhabitat: Gardens, roadsides, secondary growth and forest borders

Ecological Function: Pollinator

Food chain level: Primary consumer

Dispersal: Likely it has limited dispersal range, but it can move through open areas and road verges

Common four ring (Ypthima huebneri)
(underside)

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Butterflies: Common three ring

common three ring butterfly

Common three ring

Ypthima pandocus

At a glance, this gray brown butterfly may not be very attractive. But close inspection reveals yellow eye spots along the edge of the wing, some with dots of metallic blue set in a black pupil. This species is differentiated from the common four ring by only having 3 eyespots on its hindwing. This butterfly is associated with gardens and green spaces since its caterpillars feed on the fast growing Goat grass (Ischaemum muticum) which is usually used in lawns in Malaysia.

Food items: Nectar (as butterfly), host plant (as caterpillar)

Host plants: Gramineae, Ishcaemum muticum

Microhabitat: Gardens, roadsides, secondary growth and forest borders

Ecological Function: Pollinator

Food chain level: Primary consumer

Dispersal: Likely it has limited dispersal range, but it can move through open areas and road verges

Common three ring (Ypthima pandocus)
(underside)

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Butterflies: Psyche

psyche, butterfly

Psyche

Leptosia nina

A little white butterfly with a single black corner and dot on the upperside of each wing. Its underside is covered in mottled green gray stripes. It flies at a slow relaxed pace, but is easily startled when approached. Usually it is found flying near shadier parts of gardens, visiting wildflowers like Coromandels. The host of this butterfly are Capers (Capparis) although it can also feed on Maman as well.

Food items: Nectar (as butterfly), host plant (as caterpillar)

Host plants: Capparis heneana, Crateva religiosa, Cleome rutidosperma

Habitat: Gardens, roadsides, secondary growth and forest borders

Ecological Function: Pollinator

Food chain level: Primary consumer

Dispersal: Likely it has limited dispersal range, but it can move through open areas and road verges

Psyche (Leptosia nina)
(underside)

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Butterflies: Striped albatross

striped albatross butterfly

Striped albatross

Appias lyncida

Flying low but cautious, the males wings are striped with black on a pure white ground. At the base of the forewing is a faint spot of yellow. The females are a less stark contrast, dark brown stripes are dusted on a gray tinged ground, with orange yellow diffusing through the hind wing. One of the easiest butterflies to attract to a garden, as the host plant is the common Maman Ungu wildflower.

Food items: Nectar (as butterfly), host plant (as caterpillar)

Host plants: Cleome rutidosperma

Microhabitat: Gardens, roadsides, secondary growth and forests

Ecological Function: Pollinator

Food chain level: Primary consumer

Dispersal: A strong flier that can cross urban areas.

Striped albatross (Appias lyncida)
(underside)

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