Balconies for butterflies: a guide for the urban gardener

There are few creatures quite as charming as our native butterflies. Unfortunately, urbanisation has pushed many of these once-common insects from our cities and some local butterflies are now threatened with extinction. Increasingly, though, city dwellers are looking to welcome wildlife back into their urban gardens, no matter how small the available space may be. This is incredibly easy thanks to a widely available range of attractive indigenous plants suitable for any balcony. Most importantly, they’re both inexpensive and easy to grow.

Although easy enough, creating a balcony for butterflies does require some forethought. Both adult butterflies and caterpillars need to be catered for with appropriate food plants. The plants themselves must also be carefully chosen to guarantee that they will survive and thrive under the particular conditions of your balcony.

The Common Brown.  Image: Ian Sutton [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Common Brown. Image: Ian Sutton [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Start your butterfly balcony off by planting Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra) and Common Tussock Grass (Poa labillardieri). Both these species tolerate harsh sun and dry conditions, although by no means does that mean you should go easy on the water when it comes time to give them a drink. These two species are food plants for the Common Brown (Heteronympha merope), a showy butterfly now rarely seen in Melbourne probably due to a decline of these two native grasses within the city.

To add a little height and colour, include a Hop Goodenia (Goodenia ovata) which flowers profusely for long periods with beautiful yellow blooms. This little shrub is an incredibly hardy, drought-resistant species and can be pruned to whatever size you desire. It is a food plant for the Meadow Argus (Junonia villida) and its larvae.

Kangaroo Grass, Common Tussock Grass and Hop Goodenia like some sun but they all tolerate a range of conditions from shade to direct sun.

The Golden Everlasting (Xerochrysum bracteatum) is another must-have for any Melburnian butterfly balcony due to its drought tolerance. These showy flowers attract the Australian Painted Lady (Vanessa kershawi) which feeds on both the leaves, as a caterpillar, and the flowers, as an adult butterfly. This golden daisy is also one of very few indigenous species to bloom throughout the hot summer months. It does require a sunny position though, so place it where it will get plenty of direct light.

The Meadow Argus.  Image: JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.

The Meadow Argus. Image: JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.

The Splendid Ochre (Trapezites symmomus) is perhaps Melbourne’s most audible butterfly species. Its rapid wingbeats sound more like a small bird than a butterfly, and it can be attracted by Mat Rushes (Lomandra longifolia). These provide year-round green, even when your native grasses have turned brown in the summer heat. They tolerate a range of light levels from full sun to shade.

Another fabulous plant to include on your butterfly balcony is the Finger Lime (Citrus australasica). Although native, it is not indigenous to the Melbourne region but is from the lowland subtropical rainforest and rainforest of the coastal border region of Queensland and New South Wales. Not only does it provide delicious zesty fruits for you, but it attracts the Dingy Swallowtail (Papilio anactus), Melbourne’s largest butterfly. Its caterpillars begin life camouflaged as little bird droppings but grow to a gargantuan size over the course of a month or two. This will allow you to observe their life cycle from the comfort of your own home.

The Splendid Ochre.  Image: John Tann (Flickr: Splendid Ochre) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Splendid Ochre. Image: John Tann (Flickr: Splendid Ochre) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Many Melburnian balconies suffer from a distinct lack of direct sunlight. Fortunately, there is a perfect plant for such places, the Scrub Nettle (Urtica incisa). This delicate little native is the favoured food plant of the Australian Admiral (Vanessa itea) which constructs a little tent to shelter in during the day by folding the leaves of its host plant. The Scrub Nettle is a lover of damp and shady places so find a nice sheltered spot for it and don’t skimp on the water.

Finally, for your adult butterflies you need a source of nectar. Although many introduced flowers will suffice, there is one native genus of plant that numerous butterfly species love during the hot summer months: tea tree (Leptospermum). The nectar-filled white blooms of these plants provide a rich meal for your butterflies to fuel their busy period of mating and egg-laying. One common indigenous species with particular drought tolerance is the Prickly Tea Tree (Leptospermum continentale) which can handle partial shade to full sun.

Now that you know some of our common Melburnian butterflies and their favourite food plants, go forth and build a butterfly oasis on your balcony. Not only will you create a wonderful little garden full of butterflies to enjoy, but you will also provide a habitat which helps our six-legged friends traverse the often perilous and resource-poor concrete jungle. All it takes is one person, a few plants, and the better half of an afternoon to set up a habitat garden which will serve hundreds of butterflies for years to come.

Mackenzie Kwak is a zoologist with a broad interest in Australia's diverse flora and fauna. His research focuses on the biogeography, systematics and ecology of Australasian ectoparasites, particularly ticks, fleas and lice.

Banner image of an Australian Painted Lady courtesy of fir0002 | Canon 20D + Sigma 150mm f/2.8 + Canon MT 24-EX [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)], from Wikimedia Commons.

A Fading Flutter: Melbourne's Endangered Butterflies and Moths

This is a guest post by Mackenzie Kwak.

There is perhaps no greater dichotomy in the public’s mind than that of the butterfly and the moth. While the butterfly is admired for its bright colours and gentle flutter, the moth is despised for its often dull wings and seemingly erratic flight. The distinction between moth and butterfly, though, is often difficult to grasp. Superficially many colourful day-flying moths are mistaken for butterflies. To the average person, moths are the ugly sisters of butterflies, so uncommon and few that they needn’t even have common names. 

However, in reality butterflies are merely a small branch comprising five colourful families in the mega-diverse tree of moths, which contains more than 180,000 named species, collected into approximately 126 families. Many species remain unknown, and chances are high that if you look out of your window on a warm, overcast night, at least one of the many moths congregated on the glass will be unnamed. Unsurprisingly, many species of moth and butterfly which have been studied well enough are recorded as threatened in Victoria. In fact, eight of the 14 insect species listed as Critically Endangered in our state are moths or butterflies. 

Emerald moth. Image: Wiki Commons

Emerald moth. Image: Wiki Commons

Perhaps the most well-known of our state’s threatened butterflies is the enigmatic Eltham copper butterfly (Paralucia pyrodiscus lucida), which was thought to be extinct until it was famously rediscovered in 1986. It has an extremely complex life cycle and lives in close association with its larval host plant, sweet bursaria (Bursaria spinosa), and ants of the genus Notoncus, which tend to its caterpillars. If either of these essential associates is absent, the butterfly will also be. While found primarily in the township of Eltham along Diamond Creek, small populations also exist in scattered locations across the state. 

However, the species has been mired in controversy of late (the quiet type that only a handful of entomologists remark upon amongst themselves). The Eltham copper butterfly was originally described as a distinct species (Paralucia lucida) before being downgraded to subspecies rank (Paralucia pyrodiscus lucida). However, recent findings have suggested that it does not possess the distinctiveness to warrant even the rank of subspecies, and some authorities now only consider it to be a race of the more common fiery copper butterfly (Paralucia pyrodiscus). Many conservationists, however, aware of these recent taxonomic changes, still consider this butterfly to represent an evolutionarily significant unit (ESU) worthy of conservation. 

Overshadowed by the wide public awareness of the Eltham copper butterfly is the critically endangered small ant-blue butterfly (Acrodipsas myrmecophila). The small ant-blue, like its name suggests, is an inconspicuous little species which spends most of its life deep in the nests of ants. The caterpillars are peculiar in that unlike many other caterpillars, which live on plants, this species live in the nests of the coconut ant (Papyrius nitidus). The peculiarities don’t stop there, though, as the little caterpillars are ant-eaters, technically termed myrmecophilous by entomologists. Like Eltham copper butterflies, if they lose their ant associates, they quickly disappear from the environment.  

Native butterfly (Painted Lady). Image: Wiki Commons

Native butterfly (Painted Lady). Image: Wiki Commons

Perhaps the most threatened of the native moths to call the greater Melbourne region home is the golden sun-moth (Synemon plana) which gets its name from the striking golden orange hindwings sported by the adults. It has also been subject to the most intensive conservation efforts compared with its equally threatened sister species, the orange sun-moth (Synemon nais), reddish orange sun-moth (Synemon jcara) and the small orange spotted sun-moth (Synemon discalis), which are also regarded as Critically Endangered in Victoria. 

The golden sun-moth formerly inhabited the vast volcanic plains grasslands which stretched thousands of acres west of Melbourne, and the grassy woodlands which skirted Melbourne city until they were converted into pasture and later urban sprawl. The moth is now in decline and almost extinct, save for a few scattered populations around the greater Melbourne region. The caterpillars are rather strange, in that they do not eat the foliage of their native grass food plants, but instead eat their roots! The adult moths are remarkable as well as they do not feed at all; instead they frantically seek out a mate before producing eggs on native grasses and dying. 

Orchard Swallowtail. Image: Wiki Commons

Orchard Swallowtail. Image: Wiki Commons

Unfortunately we are too late to save some of Melbourne’s butterflies and moths, which in the past century have disappeared from our little place in the world. The bright-eyed brown (Heteronympha cordace wilsoni), orange ringlet (Hyposysta adiante), and the cryptic sun-moth (Synemon theresa) have all vanished from Melbourne. However, there are small things we can all do to ensure butterflies and moths flourish in our city! 

Perhaps the most helpful thing you can do is plant indigenous species, which provide food and shelter for caterpillars, and nectar for adult butterflies. Some common food plants which look great in the garden and are largely drought-tolerant include paper daisies (Xerochrysum spp.) and tussock grasses (Poa spp.). They also have the added bonus of being extremely well adapted to the climate and soils of the greater Melbourne region. 

You may also like to get involved with local environment groups like ‘The Friends of Merri Creek’ who have done much work to enhance local habitats along the Merri Creek for one of the few remaining populations of golden sun-moths. Last and most simple is to get to known our local butterflies and moths a little better and champion their conservation in the local community! Tell a friend or a neighbour what you have just learned and get people talking about these remarkable locals!

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mackenzie Kwak is a zoologist with a broad interest in Australia's diverse flora and fauna. His research focuses on the biogeography, systematics and ecology of Australasian ectoparasites, particularly ticks, fleas and lice. 

Review: Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia

The Book: The Complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia, 2nd Ed.

The Author: Michael F. Braby

According to the author of this book, Australia’s butterfly richness is lacking when compared to the rest of the world. I’ll have to take his word for it – as a botanist flicking through page after beautifully-arranged page of this field guide, the diversity is astonishing. In this botanist’s point of view, butterflies have previously been more of a service provider than a group that deserves its own attention - certainly lovely to look at, but really just there to move pollen. This guide serves to reverse this kind of thinking.

The glory of this book is its introduction. It begins with an anatomy lesson on body, leg and wing structure - the technical vocabulary comes thick and fast, but large and well-labelled diagrams make it easy for a novice to integrate. And it's worth making an effort - as any biologist knows, our linguistic shorthand is essential for a smooth conversation.

The concise and useful lesson on the terminology of wing shape gives a novice both a place to start looking when identifying their butterfly, as well as enough clues to help make judgments. For each of the six families of butterfly present in Australia, a diagram of typical wing veins allows quick comparison and straightforward identification - which then, rather cleverly, makes it simple knowing which section of the book should be flicked open. The sections themselves - one for each family, and one extra for species found on islands near Australia - are made clear and distinct by the coloured page edges, always useful for rapid flicking.

Further shortcuts can be found in the Introduction's section on distribution and habitats. Crisp, vibrant photos of vegetation classes and a zoned map of Australia provide a foolproof method of identifying the local habitat, allowing a reader to quickly rule out any possible butterfly identifications that don't match the source environment.

When it comes to choosing among possible identifications, the layout is informative without being overwhelming. A good description of size and colour (don't forget that vocabulary from the Introduction) is accompanied by colour photographs of the upper and lower sides, along with photographs of any seasonal, regional or polymorphic variations. The distribution maps are small, but the use of colour to show regions makes it simple to read (narrow distributions are either shown with arrows or with a zoomed-in map). A calendar of activity above each map will often have separate lines for different regions or subspecies.

For a budding lepidopterist (which I seem to be becoming as I read further), the most useful features of each species' entry are the descriptions of flight behaviour, the identified food plants of larvae, and the lists of similar species that might confound identification.

On a practical note, the guide also includes a wonderful section on how to collect, store and mount specimens. As the author points out, it's relatively low impact to collect adult specimens - and often the chance of a confirmed identification can help increase knowledge of range or behaviour. The instructions on net size and materials, preserving containers and solvents for morphological or genetic studies, and the materials to best curate a collection for the long term, are all excellent tools to help a collector make the most of their finds and - more significantly - minimise regret.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you're curious about your surroundings, if you want to learn your neighbour's names, or if you simply appreciate the beauty of Australia's butterflies. As Michael Braby points out, new species are still being discovered and documented - you could find the next one.

Cover image via Vicki Nunn / Wikimedia Commons

One for the Collectors


Title: The Butterflies of Australia 

Authors: Albert Orr & Roger Kitching

While I’ve always found insects fascinating, I've never been one of those guys who meander through meadows with a net in hand, excitedly screaming out the scientific-name of colourful butterflies as they flutter by, ripe for the catching and collecting.

Nevertheless, the very look of this book as it sat on display in the book-store was enough to capture my imagination and turn the switch in my head from butterfly indifference to butterfly enthusiast. A large, beautifully covered volume, The Butterflies of Australia is described by its authors as a field guide, but one would find it hard to contemplate inflicting the rough life of a field handy book on this treasure.

Turning the pages, one is quickly met with stunning illustrations of our country’s Lepidoptera species. The book is one big testament to the beauty of Australia’s 400 species of butterfly, and the drawings within do much to entice the reader into investigating these animals further.

The first pages are dedicated to the biology of butterflies, and while comprehensive, the academic authors Orr and Kitching do a good job at keeping the language understandable to all. The second chapter runs through the habitats in which our native species can be found, followed by a chapter on the intimate relationship these pollinating insects share with plants, and then a discussion of our own human connection with butterflies. Beyond that, the book takes on its presented purpose as a field guide, with a comprehensive coverage of Australia’s five butterfly families, and their associated sub-families. Species are often illustrated in their relevant habitats, and their range within Australia is clearly depicted. 

This book is a great edition to any reader’s bookshelf, and with such clear language and beautiful imagery, it has the ability to turn many newcomers into steadfast enthusiasts, whilst still being thorough enough to please the long-time butterfly naturalist. With the weather warming up and the insect season upon us, I would definitely recommend it.  

Buy This Book