Why butterflies are beneficial to the environment

There’s more to butterflies than meets the eye. Find out how they can help the environment – and your veggie patch.

You might not like caterpillars eating plants in your garden, but without them we wouldn’t have butterflies.

‘So what?’ you ask.

Well, butterflies do more for us than just adding colour and beauty to our gardens. Here’s a few of the ways they help the planet:

They pollinate plants

Butterflies are attracted to bright flowers and need to feed on nectar. When they do this their bodies collect pollen and carry it to other plants. This helps fruits, vegetables and flowers to produce new seeds. The majority of plants need pollinators like bees and butterflies to reproduce.

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Australian admiral butterfly (image courtesy of Julie Burgher in line with Creative Commons licensing)

They’re an indicator of a healthy environment

A garden that attracts butterflies will also bring native bees and birds. All play a role in increasing biodiversity – the variety of plants, animals and micro-organisms and their ecosystems.

Unfortunately for butterflies, they are also an important — though low-level — member of the food chain. They’re a food source for birds, spiders, lizards, mice and other animals. Caterpillars are also eaten by bats, birds and other animals.

If butterfly populations diminish, the impact is felt higher up and can affect the entire ecosystem.

Because butterflies are so sensitive to habitat and climate change, scientists are monitoring them as one way of observing the wider effects of habitat fragmentation and climate change.

They make us happy

Naturalist and veteran broadcaster Sir David Attenborough says spending time in nature – even just watching butterflies in a home garden – is good for our mental health.

‘A few precious moments spent watching a stunning red admiral or peacock butterfly feeding amongst the flowers in my garden never fails to bring me great pleasure,’ he said this year.

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Common brown butterfly (image courtesy of Ed Dunens in line with Creative Commons licensing)

How to help butterflies

We need butterflies, but it could also be argued that, since they’ve been around for millions of years, they deserve to be protected. You can help by providing the right habitat for them.

Each species’ caterpillars will only eat a specific plant type. In South Australia they include grasses, sedges, pea flowering plants, bushes and mistletoe.

Butterflies like citrus, snapdragons, crepe myrtle, wattles, tea trees, bottlebrushes, lavender, banksia, daisies and verbena.

You can learn more about butterflies and how to attract them to your garden from this factsheet, by our friends at Natural Resources Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges, or this website. Or learn from gardening guru Sophie Thomson as she provides advice about creating butterfly habitat.

Would you like to attract birds to your garden too? Read our story for some easy tips. You could also try building an insect hotel to encourage beneficial insects to stay.

Main image: common brown butterfly (image courtesy of Ed Dunens in line with Creative Commons licensing)

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