Friday, March 7, 2008

Butterflies, moths and more!

There are many beautiful butterflies and moths to be seen at school but can you tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth?

Blue Triangle Butterflies - flitting about in weeds behind Kindergarten.

Worldwide, there are 22,000 species in the Order Lepidoptera. Only 400 of these are butterflies (that’s just 2 per cent!). There is no simple foolproof way to distinguish between butterflies and moths, but try these methods:

· butterflies are brightly coloured and active by day, while moths fly by night.

· butterflies tend to rest with their wings held together above their backs, while moths tend to fold their wings like a tent over their backs.

· up close, butterflies have clubbed tips to their antennae, while most moths have feathered antennae.

Butterflies : resting with wings together; antennae have clubbed tips

Moths: wings folded, tent-like; feathered antannae

Just to confuse matters there are others in the Order Lepidoptera which are neither butteflies nor moths. They are called skippers and grass darts! They are most easily recognised by a combination of flat and upright wings. They can often be seen on the flowering oregano in the herb spiral.

Life spans

Adult butterflies may live from at least two weeks to six months, and everywhere in between. Life spans of some school species include:

What do butterflies need?

Nectar plants alone do not help butterfly species to breed and survive, but may help you to see butterflies by attracting them to the garden.

Butterflies require both:

1. a host plant to lay eggs on; and
2. plants that provide nectar.

1. a host plant to lay eggs on.

Butterflies are extremely particular about plant choice. For example, silkworms will only eat mulberry leaves and no other plants.

The butterfly larvae will eat these specially chosen leaves when they hatch. The tiny caterpillars eat lots of leaves and will moult several times as they grow larger and larger. When fully plump they then spin their chrysalis or cocoon. Generally, the plants they feed upon are not permanently damaged and some may benefit from this gentle tip pruning.

2. plants that provide nectar for the adult butterflies.

Adult butterflies are particularly attracted to daisy-type flowers (eg native everlasting daisies) as these provide excellent landing platforms while the butterflies are feeding, although other flowers types are also visited. Colour and scent are also important factors. The curled proboscis reaches the nectar by uncoiling and dipping into various shaped flowers.

Curled proboscis of a Splendid Ochre - Trapezites symmomus (photographed in the Wolli Valley)

What do moths need?

Moths, on the other hand, are most active in the evening so coloured flowers are not important. They are often attracted to cream and white flowers as these show up well at night and are often fragrant, giving off a scent which is particularly strong at dusk and early morning and very effective in attracting moths to flowers from a great distance.

Some adults will never feed, or will require other food sources such as rotting fruit (eg tropical butterfly species), bird or animal droppings! or simply mineralized water (stream banks, mud puddles etc).

This Emerald moth was very well camouflaged against a Greek Basil leaf unlike the very plain brown moth on the same plant.

This Granny's Cloak Moth (left) was one of several hiding in the cool, dark tool shed while the small brown moth (right) liked to hide under sage leaves in the herb spiral.

Below is a very colourful Orange Spotted Tiger Moth on some flowering mint. See how the proboscis stretches into the flower to reach the nectar.

Attracting butterflies and moths to your garden

  • Find out which species of butterflies and moths you have locally, and set about encouraging those
  • Grow food plants for larvae to encourage females to lay eggs
  • Grow food plants for adult butterflies with flowers rich in nectar, scent and bright colours
  • Include night-scented flowers (often white) with strong sweet scent to attract moths
  • Grow plants which flower at different times of year to provide a continuous food supply
  • Ensure diversity in your garden layout, with a mix of shaded and sunny areas, areas providing shelter from winds, and preferably some 'wild' or untended areas where grasses and 'weeds' are allowed to run freely
  • Avoid insecticides and other chemicals as much as possible and explore alternatives such as physical removal of pests, carefully timed removal, biological control, companion planting and 'friendly' organic sprays (pyrethrum leaves mixed with casuarina needles and garlic in warm water)

What threats to avoid or manage

While an adult butterfly may lay 300-500 eggs, very few will make it through to maturity. They are vulnerable at every stage of development:

  • eggs (parastic wasps corrupt the eggs, ants carry them away; humans remove them);
  • larval stages (larva are directly preyed upon by spiders, shield bugs, assassin bugs and ants; they are parisitised by Tachinid flies or Braconid wasps);
  • adult butterflies (are preyed upon birds and frogs).

This moth, Cruria synopla, has no common name. Perhaps it should be called a "Bat Moth" because it likes to have its head towards the ground when it lands. It is pictured here on the Lemon-scented gum in the ELA.


Urban landscapes, including Sydney gardens, are capable of supporting a wide range of butterfly species. A combination of local Sydney plants for larval food and adult butterfly nectar needs can contribute to the maintenance of local and regional biodiversity of butterflies. Butterfly gardening provides an opportunity to help some species persist in otherwise sterile urban landscapes.

There is scope for increasing the diversity of butterfly food plants in our gardens, especially if we coordinate this with the other co-requisites of butterflies (sunshine, shelter from wind, water sources and freedom from pesticides). It is a very worthwhile challenge for native plant gardeners everywhere.

Appendix: Examples of food plants:

Native species
Acacia podalyrifolia (Mt Morgan wattle)
Acacia melanoxylon (blackwood)
Bursaria spinosa
Calytrix tetragona
Carex sp.
Dianella revoluta
Dianella tasmanica
Gahnia sp.
Helipterum anthemoides
Indigofera australis (native indigo)
Kunzea ambigua
Kunzea parvifolia
Leptospermum brachyandrum
Leptospermum juniperinum 'horizontalis'
Leptospermum lanigerum
Leptospermum obovatum
Lomandra sp. (mat rush)
Olearia phlogopappa (daisy bush)
Parahebe perfoliata (speedwell)
Poa sp. (snow grass)
Restio tetraphyllus
Westringia glabra (native rosemary)
Westringia longifolia (native rosemary)

Introduced species

Abelia x grandiflora (glossy abelia)
Achillea millefolium (yarrow)
Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed)
Buddleia davidii (butterfly bush)
Centranthus ruber (red spurred valerian)
Choisya ternata (Mexican orange blossom)
Cistus sp. (rock rose)
Dianthus sp. (pinks and sweet william)
Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower)
Hebe sp. (hebe)
Helianthus annuus (sunflower)
Lathyrus odoratus (sweet pea)
Lavanadula spp. (lavender)
Melissa officinalis (lemon balm)
Monarda sp. (bee balm)
Myosotis sp. (forget-me-nots)
Origanum majorana (marjoram)
Philadelphus sp. (mock orange)
Salvia sp (sages)
Santolina sp. (lavender cotton)
Teucrium chamaedrys (wall germander)
Tropaeolum hybrids (nasturtium)
Valeriana officinalis (valerian)

For Moths (night-scented flowers):

Native species
Pittosporum undulatum

Introduced species
Hesperis matronalis (sweet rocket)
Lonicera (honeysuckle)
Myrrhis odorata (sweet cicely)
Narcissus sp. (daffodils, jonquils)
Philadelphus (mock orange)



Attracting Butterflies to Your Garden
Author: Densey Clyne
Publisher: New Holland Publishers - rrp $23.95 IBSN: 1 8 7633 456 8
Distributor: CSIRO Publishing
Freecall: 1800 645 051


Plenty of information can be found via a Google search BUT… a word of warning: do not order seeds advertised on the Internet in webpages promoting butterflies. These plants are usually unsuitable for our native butterflies to breed on — and some have the potential to become serious weeds in Australian bushland.