Late-flying butterflies

Posted: Monday 29 September 2014
by Adam Pasco

There’s been plenty of colour to enjoy in my autumn garden, and a host of fluttering visitors have been enjoying them as much as me.

There’s been plenty of colour to enjoy in my autumn garden, and a host of fluttering visitors have been enjoying them as much as me. Several seasonal flowers provide food for late-feeding butterflies, helping them build up reserves to survive the winter ahead.

A succession of flowers on my Buddleja davidii var nanhoensis has been attracting red admirals on a daily basis through September. I’m so glad I found those few vital minutes through July for regular deadheading, as this encouraged side shoots to develop that now carry these late flowers.

My collection of ice plants has grown in recent years, filling gaps in borders, but also grouped together in pots on my patio. These succulents love summer heat and then bloom for weeks on end from late summer well into autumn. Several butterflies feed from their flowers. I’ve often noticed they’re a particular favourite of small tortoiseshells.

Resident butterfly populations in the UK include peacock, small tortoiseshell, comma and brimstone. Many overwinter in their chrysalis stage in the soil, crevices and hidden spots away from birds and other predators, but some survive winter in their egg or caterpillar stages too. However, if red admirals and other butterflies are still on the wing in autumn and can find somewhere sheltered to overwinter, then they have a chance to survive in mild winters to emerge next spring, feed and breed.

In the past, red admirals have often been considered a migrant butterfly, flying to our country each year from Africa and across Europe once weather conditions have warmed up in summer. But if adults can successfully overwinter, then they’ll be here to breed and build up local populations in spring.

If you find any indoors, then do keep check on them as butterflies emerging from hibernation can get trapped inside against windows. If they emerge too early - when few flowers are open to provide food and poor weather threatens them - it may be too soon to release them outside. But once conditions have improved they can be released to feed, and (hopefully) find a mate to reproduce.

So I’ll continue enjoying my late autumn flower displays and their visitors, and hope said visitors find a suitable spot to shelter, survive winter and return next year.

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Diane Bolland 03/10/2014 at 08:41

Ice plants seem to be a favourite in my garden. I counted seven butterflies on one plant, including one I did not recognise. They also like my evergreen hedge and flutter in and out of it for hours, visiting the , now past their best, lavender spikes which are nearby.

Dave Morgan 03/10/2014 at 10:03

I sow butterfly friendly annuals late in July, it extends the nectar season, which means I still have plenty of butterflies in my garden, even now. Yesterday was an especially good day, with ten counted in one hour.