Moths: encouraging into your garden

Moths are often the poor cousins of butterflies when it comes to appealing to gardeners. However, with around 2,500 species in the UK, moths are hugely important for the food chain; some make good plant pollinators and are fascinating to watch in themselves.

Herald moth (Scoliopteryx libatrix). Credit: RHS/Entomology.

Quick facts

Suitable for Encouraging moths into the garden
Timing Late spring to autumn
Difficulty Moderate

What moths are in your garden?

A good field guide will be needed to identify moths, but some are readily recognisable, such as brimstone moth, mother of pearl, flame shoulder, yellow-tail, ruby tiger and blood-vein. To discover the wealth of moths in your garden, suspend a bright light over a white sheet on a warm night in summer.

How to encourage moths

By planting night-flowering, nectar-rich plants, which have specifically evolved to attract nocturnal insects, even more moths can be attracted to the garden.

  • Nicotiana (tobacco plant) and Oenothera (evening primroses) are ideal. Summer-flowering jasmines, honeysuckles, Erica cinerea, Silene latifolia and sweet rocket are all valuable nectar plants for moths
  • Day-flying moths, such as silver-Y moth and the impressive hummingbird hawk moth, can be lured with sea lavender, buddleias, Centranthus rubra and Lychnis. Provide for their caterpillars by growing lady’s bedstraw, which is also food for the huge elephant hawk moth caterpillar (as are rose bay willowherb, clarkia and fuchsia)
  • Leave longer grasses, thistles and knapweeds in wilder parts of the garden; these are food plants for many smaller moths
  • Native trees and hedging plants, such as oak, birch, willows, hawthorn and hornbeam, support many moth caterpillars but many ornamental garden plants also provide feeding opportunities for caterpillars

Place in the food chain

  • Most adult moths are active at night, making them a key food source for bats and nocturnal web-building spiders. Owls and small mammals take moths, as do many common garden birds if they discover them during the day
  • Moth caterpillars are less mobile and easier for predators to catch than adults. Blue tits, great tits, robins and many other birds, need a regular supply of caterpillars and other insects to raise their chicks successfully
  • Many species of parasitic wasps and flies develop inside the bodies of caterpillars, while others attack the pupal/chrysalis or egg stage in the life cycle of moths

Problems

Gardeners worried about caterpillars making holes in their plants’ foliage should consider growing larger or more vigorous plants where the damage is easier to tolerate.

Many of the caterpillar pests are the larvae of moths, including; angle shades moth, codling moth, holm oak leaf-mining moths, horse chestnut leaf-mining moth, leek mothpea moth, plum moth and winter moth caterpillars. Cabbage caterpillars may be those of moths or, more commonly, butterflies.

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