Butterflies & moths

Red admiral butterfly
The red admiral butterfly is found only in New Zealand

The fluttering wings of butterflies and moths can lift your spirits while they pollinate your garden plants.

A massive 90% of New Zealand’s Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) species are found nowhere else in the world. Some thrived with the arrival of humans but many more declined; over 110 species are now threatened with extinction.

A few introduced butterflies are commonly seen too much, such as the monarch and the white butterfly. While the white butterfly is recognised as a pest, the self-introduced monarch is a common sight due to the popularity of non-native swan plants.

Gardening for butterflies and moths

Gardens popular with moths and butterflies requires less maintenance than traditional gardens. Simply provide the right combination of food plants, nectar plants, shelter for chrysalises, water and no insecticide.

Several wasps (Ichneumon, Pteromalus and Apanteles) have being released to control the introduced white butterfly which is now a common pest, however this is also affecting other New Zealand natives, especially the red and yellow admiral.

Moths, butterflies and insects need hiding places. Crevices in tree bark and under window sills are good places to look. Try pinning old egg boxes onto the garden fence and see what you get.

Moths are attracted to light at night and bright light bulbs can confuse them, so don't over-illuminate your garden.

Copper butterfly on Hebe
Flowering Hebe species are a popular nectar source for butterflies

Supporting the butterfly life cycle

Understanding the butterfly life cycle will help you plant a suitable environment for them.

  • Female butterflies lay their eggs on plant species that nourish their offspring once hatched into caterpillars. For example, all copper butterflies use the muehlenbeckia species for their host plants. The Muehlenbeckia is also host for another 100 or so species of moths and butterflies.
  • Caterpillars feed constantly, pausing only to shed their skins. After five or six moults the full-sized caterpillar crawls away from its host plant, finds a sheltered location and sheds its skin a final time.
  • The new skin is a camouflaged case called a chrysalis, within which the tissues of the caterpillar are liquefied and rearrange to form a butterfly. Depending on the species and the season, the chrysalis stage may last a few weeks or as much as six months.
  • Once emerged from their chrysalises, one of the main sources of nectar for butterflies is Hebe. Adult male butterflies spend their time looking for females to mate. When a male finds a place with lots of attractive, nectar-producing flowers, it lingers there and waits for females to come and drink. The male will patrol the area, engage other males in aerial combat, and bask on prominent lookout perches. An adult female, meanwhile, drinks nectar, mates, and searches for plants on which to lay eggs.

Copper butterflies

Copper butterflies are a widespread group of mainly orange butterflies that can be found throughout the country. Even the common copper butterfly, pepe parariki, seems to be several nearly identical species.

Copper butterfly
Copper butterflies will be drawn to Muehlenbeckia species in your garden

These pretty butterflies are most often seen near coastal areas, but what all species have in common is their host plants: the Muehlenbeckia genus (wire vines / pohuehue), including the tiny-leaved, pillow-shaped M. complexa and the extensive vines of M. australis, great for hiding ugly fences and walls. Attracting copper butterflies to your garden is fairly easy: grow some Muehlenbeckia and a few nectar-producing plants.

All copper butterfly species suffer from wasp predation, especially paper wasps, as they provide a good source of protein for the wasp's developing larvae. Their numbers have further decreased due to host plant loss, especially in dune areas.

Admirals

Our red admiral (kahu kura) is found only in New Zealand. Both the red and yellow admirals (kahu kowhai) are often encountered sunbathing on walls, paths, rocks and fences, or feeding on sap from tree bark, berries, fruit juices or nectar plants like Hebe.

Yellow admiral butterfly
Yellow admiral butterfly

Admirals are usually a forest edge species, but can often be seen in more native gardens. They rely on host plants in the stinging nettle family (Urtica spp), which the larvae eat and live on. The common nettle (Urtica dioica) and Ongaonga (Urtica ferox) are admiral favourites, ongaonga sometimes less by the yellow. However, both will feed on any of the nettle species including the introduced Urtica urens. 

Both species have experienced a population decline over the last few decades, due to reduced numbers of host plants around gardens and towns. With its painful stings, ongaonga is unpopular with gardeners, but planted at less accessible sites will be truly beneficial for admiral butterflies. Some of the other Urtica species are less ferocious and can be used in more domestic situations. The more nettles we plant, the higher our chances of bringing colourful admiral butteflies back to our gardens.

Moths

New Zealand moths seem to attract less attention than butterflies. While butterflies are active during the day the moths, generally, take over their space by night. They hold their wings flat while resting and have feathery antennae. Some native species of moth are active during the day and the reason we don’t see them, with a few exceptions, is that they are masters of hiding. Their camouflage makes them very difficult to spot, for example, the cabbage tree moth’s colour and pattern help it blend in successfully with dead cabbage tree leaves.