The Ultimate Butterfly Protection Guide

Written by Hannah Miller. Fact checked by Daniel Woodley. Published to Hannah’s Corner. Updated: 4th of November 2022.

It’s no secret that the younger generation cares about the environment, which has become the defining issue of this century so far.

From Greta Thunberg’s famous school strike to David Attenborough’s shocking footage of ocean plastics in the Blue Planet 2 program, the younger generation’s attention is firmly on the environment.

Nearly 90% of the plants on this planet rely on pollinators such as bees and butterflies, but sadly, and disturbingly, their population in the US and Europe is in severe decline:

Butterfly chart

Our Butterflies are in Decline

Today, scientists from all over the world are looking into why our wild creatures are gradually disappearing, and trying to find ways to improve things. For instance, the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) studied the decline of butterflies in Europe. Their 2020 report says that 8% of the United Kingdom’s resident species have become extinct, and goes on to explain that since 1976 (when butterfly numbers were first counted) the total number of butterflies living in the UK has dropped by 50%.

And looking at records stretching back to the 1800s, researchers have also tracked how butterflies slowly disappeared from more and more parts of our country. Between 1890 and 1940, butterfly numbers in some regions dropped by as much as 80%.

European butterflies in danger of extinction are placed on a Red List. Back in 2010, 38 of Europe’s 482 species were described as ‘threatened’ with extinction, while another 44 species were classed as ‘near threatened’.

Just in the UK, 20 species are declining (including the Swallowtail, Large Blue and Large Copper), 21 are staying at the same levels. The reasons for this overall species decline seem to be much the same across all European countries:

  • The loss and ruin of many former butterfly habitats.
  • The chemical pollution of butterfly habitats.
  • The effects of climate change.

How Important Are Butterflies and Other Pollinators?

They are crucial to us and our environment:

Pollinator Infographic

Six vital steps: How gardeners can help our native butterflies

Butterflies do need your help. So here are some things you can do to make it easier for our native butterflies to survive, even in towns and cities:

1) Stop using insecticides and pesticides

Modern gardeners now have alternative, insect-friendly ways to remove garden pests. So don’t use nasty chemicals which will kill or harm all living creatures around your garden – and perhaps family pets too.

2) Grow some of our top-20 butterfly-friendly plants

Even just growing a few of the best butterfly plants will make a difference. Don’t worry too much about your gardening skills, because many of the plants recommended here will grow very easily indeed:

  • Buddleia (The butterfly bush)
  • Verbena
  • Knapweed
  • Ivy
  • Eupatorium
  • Marjoram
  • Michaelmas Daisy
  • Lavender
  • Ice Plant
  • Scabious
  • Red Valerian
  • Hyssop
  • Thistle
  • Bramble
  • Wallflower
  • Honesty
  • Eryngium
  • Common Fleabane
  • Water Mint
  • Dandelion

3) Create a small wild area

Some of the plants recommended above are considered to be weeds. But if you can let a small, sunny, sheltered part of your garden ‘go wild’ with long grasses, nettles, brambles, dandelions and more, your butterflies will soon make it their home patch where they can shelter and breed safe and undisturbed. They will then be able to gather nectar in season and lay eggs on the plant leaves which will grow to become a new generation of beautiful butterflies.

4) Make patio/decking areas smaller

If you can cut down the size of these garden areas, you will have more space to grow plants. And if you grow more plants, your garden will help to support even more butterflies.

Concrete does nothing for the environment, it takes up valuable space that insects need, and it prevents rainwater from entering the soil which leads to damaging flash floods.

5) Make space for some water

On those hot summer days many small animals, birds and insects simply die through the lack of water they can drink (dehydration). While a stream, waterfall or pond will make a great garden feature, even a bowl of fresh water sunk into the ground will be enough to save these creatures. Whatever your source of garden water, be sure to refill it frequently and place some pebbles in the water. This will allow small creatures to perch, get to the water and drink while avoiding any risk they might fall in and drown.

If you have fruit trees, try to leave some of the fallen fruit on the ground. This will provide another very welcome source of moisture and food for your butterflies.

6) Buy a butterfly house

Placing a butterfly-friendly house in your garden will give your local butterflies somewhere to shelter. While a few may roost overnight in the summer, most adult butterflies will be more likely to use the house for their hibernation over the winter. Butterfly species which often do this include: Red Admirals, Peacocks, Tortoiseshells, and Commas.

Your butterfly house should be put in some sunny spot, out of the wind. Try to make sure it is at least four feet off the ground. To give your butterflies some extra shelter, you will need some pieces of tree bark stood upright inside the house. They will use these to cling to while they hibernate through the winter.

Butterfly House

Five Activities for Young Butterfly Conservationists

Butterfly count

You can really help butterfly scientists just by counting the species in your garden. The results can then be recorded online at Butterflies for the New Millennium Online, or sent with a smartphone by downloading the iRecord Butterflies app.

Build a butterfly house

For anyone good at simple woodworking, the Butterfly Website has some simple plans for building your own butterfly house. This will give your garden butterflies some extra protection and is fun too.

Raise your own butterflies

The Butterfly Website also includes details of Live Butterfly Kits for children and adults. These allow nature enthusiasts to raise their own Painted Lady butterflies from the caterpillar stage and watch them grow into adult butterflies. Once they are fully grown, your special, hand-reared butterflies can then be released to enjoy life in your garden and beyond.

Butterfly photograph challenge

Children could go on a garden safari to take pictures of butterflies. You will find butterflies are very active in the hot sun. So it’s best to take your photos in the early morning, late afternoon, or early evening, or perhaps on a cloudy day. These are the best times to find butterflies perched with open wings as they try to catch the sun’s heat to keep them warm.

Butterfly painting challenge

After taking butterfly photos, some children may feel inspired to paint their own butterflies. Younger artists, or those who need a little more help, will find lots of butterfly images online to download and paint or decorate with coloured pens and pencils.

Learn About The Butterfly Lifecycle

You may notice a butterfly’s beautiful wings first, but this is just one part of their body.

They also have a head with bulging eyes, a thorax (chest), an abdomen (the belly and tail section) and six thin, stick-like legs. On top of the head, there are two antennae (long stalks) used to find sweet-scented flowers.

Delicate butterfly wings are one of nature’s wonders. There are actually four wings altogether, made from a very thin, scaly material (chitin). The upper wings, just below the head, usually have a triangle shape, while the lower set usually look more like a fan. Scientists say a butterfly’s bold wing colours are designed to scare away creatures who see the butterfly as food. These wings also help a butterfly to stay warm by trapping heat, but are easily damaged – which is why butterflies don’t like wind and rain.

A butterfly lives its life in four separate stages:

1) egg
2) caterpillar
3) chrysalis
4) butterfly

Butterfly eggs are laid upon a leaf. The plant provides food for the greedy, wriggly caterpillar which hatches from the egg. The caterpillar changes into a chrysalis with a hard case. This case grows and then bursts open to reveal a handsome new butterfly which is soon ready to fly. Some larger butterflies can hibernate through the winter, but most butterflies live their short lives under the summer sun.

Butterfly life cycle

Start Protecting Butterflies Now

The loss of so many butterflies and the species’ decline is more than a pity, it’s a disturbing indication of how our biodiversity is in decline, and our actions are affecting the natural world.

The key to changing our behaviour is with our children, and getting them interested in pollinators and wildlife in general, is an essential first step.

Life on earth without pollinators such as bees and butterflies would be a lot more challenging than it is now, so every gardener and their children should take steps to help these beautiful insects.

Meet The Author: Hannah Miller

Hannah is a former NHS administrator, mother of two and keen gardener with a horticulture qualification who loves growing new plants and experimenting in the garden.

She enjoys gardening as much as she cares about the environment and likes to share her knowledge with others.

This year is all about pollinators, and Hannah has set herself the goal of only buying new plants that attract pollinators; she aims to make the garden as bee and butterfly friendly as possible.

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