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.

Finding the little things that make our city special

…the true treasure of the City of Melbourne, metropolitan Melbourne, and any other city across Australia and the world is its nature.

A good children’s book is often seen as one that can either inspire or educate. A better one will do both. Such is the case with The Little Things that Run the City - 30 amazing insects that live in Melbourne!. Co-authored by Kate Cranney, Sarah Bekessy and Luis Mata, and published in partnership with the City of Melbourne, this exceptional book provides children with the opportunity to discover some of Melbourne’s most wonderful insects – some well-known and others less so – and will also inspire them to seek out the world of ‘little things’ that goes largely unnoticed.

Image: City of Melbourne

Image: City of Melbourne

Luis Mata describes how the inspiration to write the book came while conducting fieldwork with co-author, Kate Cranney, for the original The Little Things that Run the City project. While outside observing some of the incredible insects of Melbourne, both Kate and Luis were questioned by children and their parents passing by about what they were up to. He explains that ‘Kate and I really enjoyed the opportunity to take a break and explain to both the kids and their parents some of the fascinating things we we’re learning by observing the amazing insects that call the City of Melbourne home.’ It was these ‘…enthusiastic children and their supportive parents [who] were a true inspiration to develop the ideas that led to The Little Things that Run the City - 30 amazing insects that live in Melbourne!’.

Kate describes how '...kids love insects: spotting butterflies in the park, the sideways sway of a praying mantis, or a huddle of sawfly larvae, all rearing their heads. It’s no accident that Bugs Alive! is one of Museum Victoria's most popular exhibitions.' This is indeed something that can be easily forgotten by us adults - kids love discovering these little things in the garden or the local park, and are invigorated by the opportunity to learn more about them in an outdoor setting. 

In this special publication, Luis’ up-close photographs and Kate’s stunning illustrations provide a rare opportunity for readers to learn about and admire some of Melbourne’s wonderful insect life through both a photographer’s and illustrator’s lens. Moving from page to page, children will find themselves learning fantastic facts about the little things of our city. From the mesmerising hunting techniques of the Garden Praying Mantis and the ability of Long-tailed Sawfly larvae to turn leaves into skeletons, to the unassuming beauty of the Bush Cockroach and, my personal favourite, the sneaky breeding tactics of the alluring Checkered Cuckoo Bee, this book is packed with information that’s presented in an incredibly digestible format.

The Garden Praying Mantis is often a difficult species to spot, as they're generally camouflaged within their surroundings so as not to be seen by predators. This also enables them to sneak up on their own prey.  Image: Luis Mata

The Garden Praying Mantis is often a difficult species to spot, as they're generally camouflaged within their surroundings so as not to be seen by predators. This also enables them to sneak up on their own prey. Image: Luis Mata

The book has already been used by schools and children’s outdoor education groups like Leap into Nature, as detailed in a recent Wild Melbourne article by founder Christina Renowden. Kate tells me that ‘...kids are taking the book outdoors, into parks and gardens, and using it as a mini-field guide. We think that’s wonderful! Kids are using the book as part of ‘bug detective’ games – running about, trying to find the 30 insects in the book, and drawing other insects that they find. For Sarah, Luis and I, getting more kids into nature is a fantastic outcome!’

When I asked Luis if the book could also be enjoyed by adults, he assured me that they had ‘…planned the longer stories that go alongside Kate’s illustrations with both children and adults in mind.’ All three authors ‘…are thoroughly convinced that the amazing insects that live in Melbourne have something to say to everyone regardless of their age.’

But appreciating Melbourne’s insect biodiversity isn’t just about admiring their looks and behaviour. Luis explains how ‘insects are a fundamental component of nature in our cities’, especially when it comes to ecosystem services such as pollinating flowers and keeping plant pests at bay. Arguably, these insects are part of what makes Melbourne such an impressive city and allow both visitors and those that live here the chance to appreciate life on a smaller level.

I think Melburnians and Australians should consider themselves incredibly lucky to live amongst such a beautiful variety of amazing, unique insects. I’m particularly captivated by the rich connections that Indigenous people in Melbourne and Australia have with insects and other non-human animals – I treasure every Boon wurrung insect word that the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages provided for the book.

We often hear of children already being fascinated by the little things from a young age, such as the insects in their own backyards. This is an interest that sometimes seems to dissipate with age, and so a book like this will hopefully do wonders for those kids who want to retain that interest, or motivate those who are yet to develop it. Luis believes that as parents, it’s important to ‘keep providing… opportunities to remain in contact with nature and to keep highlighting the positive aspects of insects…’ throughout children’s lives. Adults are often guilty of dismissing native insects as nuisances, but it’s important to remember that for children, these animals can be the most fascinating part of enjoying the outdoors and that what we may see as pests are actually vital role-players in our local ecosystems.

This book is really the first of its kind and will hopefully result in other, similar children’s books with a focus not just on Australian wildlife in general, but local wildlife. As co-author Sarah Bekessy explains, we need to do more to make our Australian cities ‘unique’. Cities around the world are becoming more and more alike, and embracing local biodiversity ensures that we don’t lose what is special about Australian places.

The book is already being used by children in school or during outdoor education activities.  Image: City of Melbourne

The book is already being used by children in school or during outdoor education activities. Image: City of Melbourne

This unique book will hopefully allow both children and adults to engage with the insects around our city, enhancing the public's appreciation of the biodiversity that makes Melbourne special. Co-author Sarah Bekessy's son is pictured here dressed as a 'fluffy bum' (the nymph stage of the Passionvine Planthopper) at the book launch.  Image: Sarah Bekessy

This unique book will hopefully allow both children and adults to engage with the insects around our city, enhancing the public's appreciation of the biodiversity that makes Melbourne special. Co-author Sarah Bekessy's son is pictured here dressed as a 'fluffy bum' (the nymph stage of the Passionvine Planthopper) at the book launch. Image: Sarah Bekessy

As demonstrated by the minuscule Melburnians described in this book, there is much to love about our insect biodiversity alone. Imagine the possibilities if we extended this to all groups of animals, plants, fungi and made it clear to both residents and visitors that these are what make our home extraordinary. Sarah hopes that readers see the book as ‘a beautiful, compelling piece of work’ and describes the feeling of readers declaring their excitement when spotting the illustrated insects with their own eyes. As she tells me, ‘it’s all stuff that you can actually see yourself’ – again, the idea of what’s local is ever-important.

Finally, I asked Luis whether he had a favourite insect featured in the book. For him, it was the Blue-banded Bee. The photograph used to illustrate this species in fact marks the moment when Luis first saw this unusual bee during the Melbourne Bioblitz in 2016. He tells me that he will ‘…never forget how exciting that moment was, seeing those extraordinary, beautiful blue bands contrasting sharply with the alternate black ones. And the agile, graceful way the bee flew from one flax-lily to the other – a truly amazing experience!’ This is hopefully a joy that more Melburnians will share after learning to recognise our city’s distinctive insects using this remarkable book.

Luis admits that his favourite insect featured in the book is the Blue-banded Bee, this photo marking the moment when he first saw the species in the wild. The book explains how this beautiful insect uses a head-banging technique called 'buzz pollination' to collect pollen, and that the Boon wurrung word for bees is 'murnalong'.  Image: Luis Mata

Luis admits that his favourite insect featured in the book is the Blue-banded Bee, this photo marking the moment when he first saw the species in the wild. The book explains how this beautiful insect uses a head-banging technique called 'buzz pollination' to collect pollen, and that the Boon wurrung word for bees is 'murnalong'. Image: Luis Mata

You can download the eBook edition of The Little Things that Run the City - 30 amazing insects that live in Melbourne! at this link, or purchase a hard copy edition at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens gift shop or the Melbourne Museum gift shop

Rachel Fetherston - headshot.png

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.

You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.

Banner image of a Brown Darkling Beetle courtesy of Luis Mata. 

Wetland plants: Providing indigenous food for arthropods in the heart of summer

To keep ecosystems functioning well, it is important to provide indigenous food sources for beneficial insects throughout the entire year.

As a result, insects that thrive in late summer will have enough energy to continue their daily routines. These routines often include providing helpful services to your backyard garden by assisting with pollination, composting and aphid control.

The challenge is finding indigenous plants that can cope with the arduous and dry conditions of the Australian summer. Soaring temperatures from early summer, starting in November, can put pressure on plants to survive. Thankfully, Victorian plants have evolved traits to help them cope in the month of November. Red Box (Eucalyptus polyanthemos), for example, possess leaves with a silvery shine. This colour allows the leaves to reflect more of the sun’s photon spectrum than a darker leaf colour does. In combination with a large leaf surface area, which helps maximise transpiration (the evaporation of water from plant leaves), trees such as Red Box can control their internal temperature range. Some Acacias such as Early Wattle (Acacia genistifolia) and Prickly Moses (Acacia verticillata) have waxy nodes (they don't have leaves), which help reduce water loss when opening their pores to photosynthesise.

From December onwards it becomes increasingly difficult to supply food sources in your garden for insects that provide valuable services such as pollination. Most indigenous wildflowers, shrubs, Acacias and eucalypt trees, which supply the bulk of indigenous nectar and pollen during late spring and early summer, have finished flowering by this time.  

So the burning question is: what plants flower and provide sustenance for insects from December to February? During the last two summers, I've been paying particular attention to this question. It is an important question, because this is the period when butterflies and native bees thrive. My observations have drawn me to the importance of wetlands and ephemeral water bodies in Victoria.

 An Ochre Skipper Butterfly feeding on Purple Loosestrife.  Image: Michael Smith

 An Ochre Skipper Butterfly feeding on Purple Loosestrife. Image: Michael Smith

Plants in these ecosystems often have an abundance of water. The water they suck up through their roots eventually makes its way to the leaves. The water pumps up the leaves, making them vigorous and strong. Healthy leaves mean that there is more surface area to photosynthesise, and as a result, more energy to produce flowers. So while plants in dry forests have resorted to dying or hiding underground, wetland plants can flower en masse.

Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and Slender Knotweed (Persicaria decipiens) are both easy to grow, and provide a lot of nectar and pollen for butterflies, day-flying moths, and bees. These species include the Common Blue Butterfly, the Ochre Skipper Butterfly and moths from the Agaristinae family. Additionally, Purple Loosestrife is a haven for Blue-banded, Resin, Chequered Cuckoo and Leafcutter Bees. These bees not only pollinate wetland plants, but will also pollinate other plants in the vicinity. In my backyard, Blue-banded Bees are visiting my wetland, herb garden (Catnip, Lemon-balm, Mint), and tomato plants - pollinating as they go.

A rather interesting observation I've noted is the amount of white flowering plants you see in wetlands - examples include Water Plantain (Alisma plantago-aquatica), Australian Gypsywort (Lycopus australis) and Willow Herb (Epilobium billardierianum). Some studies have shown that white and yellow flowers tend to be visited by a larger range of insects. Having white flowers in high summer, when flowering diversity is low, makes sense for an insect-plant relationship because many insects will happily feed from these plants.

A Chequered Cuckoo Bee feeding on Purple Loosestrife.  Image: Michael Smith

A Chequered Cuckoo Bee feeding on Purple Loosestrife. Image: Michael Smith

With so much insect diversity around wetlands, it is no wonder predatory arthropods feel at home around these water bodies. St Andrews Cross Spiders make their webs between Carex leaves, waiting for insects to become trapped, while dragonflies and robber flies search the wetland zone for small insects, such as mosquitoes, to feast on.  

If you're interested in creating a wetland in your garden, there are many good examples online and in council booklets. Wetlands can be made from baths or depressions with a lining. If you're looking for a terrestrial plant that can handle dry soil in summer, then Sweet Bursaria (Bursaria spinosa) is of great value. Their long, deep roots allow them to locate water in places other plants cannot reach. At times I've seen these trees teaming with bees, flies, butterflies and beetles. It comes as no surprise that this plant also has white flowers.

Michael Smith is a trained ecologist who currently works in bush regeneration, habitat engineering and environmental education. He is passionate about community engagement and teaching the importance of biodiversity.

Banner image of Alisma plantago-aquatica courtesy of Christian Fischer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Endless Marvels: Australia's Striking Stag Beetles

‘Beetles rule the world – we humans just happened to live here.’ From its first page, this book is as much as tribute as it is a guide. Beetles make up around 25% of all known species on Earth. There are almost 25,000 described beetles in Australia alone. They can be as colourful as birds, and just as diverse. But because many beetles spend their life in the undergrowth, rarely seen by humans, their beauty and variety can easily go unappreciated.

In this unique book, the incredible diversity of one, small group of beetles is put on display. In Australia, there are 95 species in the family Lucanidae, commonly known as stag beetles. This book provides a coloured photograph of each, along with a description of their morphology, distribution, and ecology. As someone more familiar with birds than insects, I was amazed at how much these beetles vary. Their colours range from metallic gold to deep green, bright blue, purple and black. Some have huge mandibles curved upwards like antlers. Others have much smaller mandibles, shaped more like tiny pincers. Some live for weeks, others for years. Some fly, while others spend their entire life under a log.

A Guide to Stag Beetles of Australia is divided into three main parts. In Part I, the authors introduce the stag beetles, their ancestry, the history of stag beetle research, and other relevant scientific concepts. For anyone interested in the reasoning behind scientific classification, or why we use a ‘dead’ language to describe plants and animals, this section is particularly enjoyable. Part II provides a guide to each Australian stag beetle, organised by sub-family. Part III explains how to keep and collect stag beetles, and concludes with useful resources for beetle enthusiasts.

Besides being a field guide, this book is also a celebration of curiosity and wonder. As the authors confess, stag beetles are not particularly important for forestry or agriculture. Many are barely ever seen. Their appeal is in their evolutionary history, their role within a complex ecosystem, their rarity, their mysterious habits, and of course their incredible diversity. One of the most striking things when reading this book is how much we still don’t know. For some species, next to nothing is known about their biology. There are species that have never been seen since they were first described. As the authors state, ‘the study is endless and so is our marvel at life’.

Rainbow stag beetle ( Phalacrognathus muelleri ).  Image: Wikimedia Commons

Rainbow stag beetle (Phalacrognathus muelleri). Image: Wikimedia Commons

This book is intended to be accessible to any nature lover, and it largely achieves this goal. Setting its scientific merit aside, this is the type of book that would have fascinated me as a child. The photographs are stunning, many showing the beetles in their natural habitat. Minor aspects of the layout could perhaps be improved, particularly the distinction between one species description and the next. The accurate description of species also requires specific terms, which are defined in a helpful glossary, but could still be daunting to some readers. Nonetheless, this book provides an engaging, well-structured guide to a somewhat enigmatic group of Australian animals.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you are interested in finding and identifying beetles or simply curious about the creatures in Australia’s undergrowth.

A Guide to Stag Beetles of Australia is due out this month. Head to the CSIRO Publishing website to purchase your copy. 

Anne Aulsebrook

Anne is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, interested in conservation and the evolution of animal behaviour. One of her favourite books as a child was a field guide to Melbourne's spiders. She is currently researching how streetlights affect sleep in urban birds. 

You can find her on Twitter at @AnneAulsebrook.

Banner image courtesy of Donald Hobern / Wikimedia Commons.