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:

1. They pollinate plants in your garden

Butterflies are great for your garden as they 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)

2. They’re an indicator of a healthy environment

A garden that attracts butterflies will also bring native bees and birds.

They are all really good for the environment and 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 (or disappear altogether!), the impact will be 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.

3. 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.

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

How we can help protect 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. Here are some ways you can help protect butterflies:

  • You can help by providing the right habitat for them. Each species’ caterpillars will only eat a specific plant type. In South Australia this includes grasses, sedges, pea flowering plants, bushes and mistletoe. By planting these, you will encourage butterflies to lay caterpillar eggs in your garden.
  • Try to minimise chemical use in your gardens, as pesticides and chemicals are lethal to all insects, including caterpillars.
  • Butterflies are fussy eaters and like citrus, snapdragons, crepe myrtle, wattles, tea trees, bottlebrushes, lavender, banksia, daisies and verbena. Include a variety of these nectar- producing plants in your garden to ensure that there is butterfly-friendly food available throughout the year. 

You can learn more about butterflies and how to attract them to your garden from this factsheet about bringing butterflies back, by our friends at Landscape South Australia Hills and Fleurieu, or the Butterfly Conservation SA website. Or learn from gardening guru Sophie Thomson as she provides advice about creating a butterfly habitat.

Would you like to attract more beneficial fauna to your garden? Read our story on attracting birds to your garden. 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)

This story was originally posted in December 2018.

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