Posts tagged ‘Gatekeeper’

July 12, 2013

How to identify your butterfly – time of year

12 July 2013

Apologies I missed a blog – have had a virus which drained me of all energy.

One of the things you don’t realise when you are new to looking at butterflies is that each species only flies for a certain length of time each year, and the months in which they fly each year are fairly consistent. A few butterflies may be seen almost throughout the year, notably the Brimstone, which is only absent in the very depths of winter. Others are very limited in the time they spend in the adult stage: each Silver-studded Blue, for example (not a butterfly which you will find in your garden) only lives for 4-5 days.

Male Silver-studded Blue. Photo by Ken Dolbear.

Male Silver-studded Blue. Photo by Ken Dolbear.

This can be a great help in identification. If you see a blue butterfly in March or April it has to be a Holly Blue – none of the other blues are on the wing at this time. If you see a white butterfly in April, it is more likely to be a Green-veined White or an Orange Tip than a Large or Small White – the latter may be on the wing, but are much less numerous, judging from my experience in my garden. With the most common butterflies in the brown family, the Meadow Brown is out before the Gatekeeper – this year, the first Meadow Brown reported to the Dorset Branch of Butterfly Conservation’s website was 19 June, but the Gatekeeper didn’t turn up until 11 July. Most identification guides will show you the flight period of the adult, so use this information when you are trying to identify a butterfly you have seen.

Don’t forget size is important too – see my article on the subject. The Silver-studded Blue above is tiny, with a wingspan of about 30mm, wheras the Meadow Brown’s wingspan is around 50mm.

I’ve just had the first Meadow Browns in the garden; I haven’t got a photo of them yet, but the shot below is one of my favourite ones from several years ago.

Two Meadow Browns on an echinacea flower

Meadow Browns on an echinacea flower

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June 22, 2013

Growing Herbs for Bees and Butterflies

22 June 2013

This year in the garden is amazing. Maybe it was last year’s copious rain, maybe it was a reasonably normal winter (whatever normal is these days), maybe it was a late Spring, but the speed at which plants are growing is incredible. I’ll swear our potoatoes are growing visibly every day: I just hope they are busy below ground as well, given they were very late getting going and we usually get hit by pototo blight.

I just came across a photo I took of our herb bed back in April – 24th to be precise, so that’s not quite two months ago, and look at the difference:

Herb bed: left on 24 April; right on 20 June

Herb bed: left on 24 April; right on 20 June

It’s a bed just outside the back door, and we dug it right out and re-started it this year, as the mint had rampaged and nearly flattened everything else. Now the mint is (hopefully) limited to either end of the bed, and in the middle we’ve got sage, lemon balm, marjoram and buckler leaf sorrel. For this year there is also a bit of thyme and some flat-leaved parsley, but they will both be gone by next year; I might re-plant some flat-leaved parsley, as I like it in salads, but the main parsley crop will be in the veg beds – we always aim to freeze a load to get us through the winter. If you haven’t tried buckler-leaf sorrel, by the way, do: it’s got a lovely lemony zing, and though it’s a bit too strong by itself, it peps up salads a treat.

Many herbs are good for insects; they are often native or long-established plants, so the insects have developed to use them. It can be a problem growing for both culinary use and wildlife, as the former calls for flowers to be cut off so the leaves develop best, while the latter means letting the flowers develop. I generally go with the latter – I find there are still enough leaves to give us what we need. Sage has a beautiful flower, and the blue of the flower looks lovely against the leaves if you have the purple-leaved sage; it is also very good for bees: I spend many a contented few minutes watching them buzz from flower to flower. Marjoram flowers are good for butterflies to nectar on, especially those within the family of Browns such as the Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper. One of the butterflies I wish I saw more in my garden – the Small Copper – uses sorrel as its caterpillar food plant, but I’m not sure it uses this type of sorrel – but I live in hope.

Small Copper on Aster Frikartii 'Monch'

Small Copper on Aster Frikartii ‘Monch’

So – pep up your diet by growing some herbs, and let them flower for the wildlife.

February 26, 2013

Gardening for butterfly caterpillars – Grass

26 February 2013

The foodplant used by more butterflies (and moths) than any other is grass. The families of butteflies that use it are the skippers – not so likely to be found in gardens unless you live near suitable habitiat – and the browns, including butterflies you might see in your garden: Speckled Wood, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown.

Left to right: Speckled Wood, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown

Left to right: Speckled Wood, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown

“Well, that’s easy, we’ve got lots of that” I can hear you say – well, yes and no. If you are the type of gardener who likes a close-cut lawn with stripes, this is no good, and even the standard lawn isn’t likely to be ideal – the majority of lawns are mainly made up of rye grass, which is tough to withstand use, but no good for insects.

Annual meadow grass (photo: internet)

Annual meadow grass (photo: internet)

What you need are British native grasses, and I’d guess you need to let them grow, not mow them short, though my knowledge in this area is limited. Looking in the book “Foodplant List for Caterpillars” by Tim Crafer, the single grass which is eaten by the most butterfly and moth caterpillars is annnual meadow grass (Poa annua). I suspect you might have this inyour garden anyway, so it could be a good excuse to leave it if you are bored with weeding….

Other grasses used by butterflies include cocksfoot, couch, tor, yorkshire fog, tufted hair, dog’s tail,  and the fescue and bent families. Couch is one which really tests my butterfly-friendliness: my husband and I have spent two years digging through an herebaceous bed, removing couch and bindweed, so I’d have to say be careful with it – it forms the most amazing root mass, which forces other plants out: I found one piece which only showed about 2″ (5cm) above ground, but the root went on for over 6′ (2m).

Native grass seed/mixes are becoming a lot more easily available these days, sometimes with native wild flowers mixed in. Keeping the grasses, and flowers, you want from becoming swamped by the stronger-growing species is another challenge….