Taking Action for Butterflies

I sneakily added in a few extra Nature Heroes in New Zealand Nature Heroes. In the biography of George Gibbs (wētā expert) on page 34 his grandfather George Hudson gets a brief mention and page 35 shows some of his amazing art work. Now George Gibbs has published a biography of his grandfather who himself wrote and illustrated many books about butterflies and moths and other insects.

Did you know you can take action to help our native butterflies and moths? Most people know that we need to take action to help our native birds, but butterflies and moths aren’t often thought about as animals that need conserving. Yet our native butterflies and moths play an important role in our ecosystems, as pollinators and as part of the food web. New Zealand has around 1800 different species of butterflies and moths, most of them moths. Some are listed as threatened and at risk, such as the forest ringlet butterfly.

Maui’s Copper butterfly – there are many different copper butterfly species in New Zealand. They are often found along the coast or in open spaces.

What can you do to help? One of the problems is that scientists don’t have enough information about some species, especially those that live in remote places. You can join citizen science projects to help. 

Butterfly Counts

Every year you could take part in a butterfly count. It’s good to do counts like this at the same time each year. The Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust encourage counting in November. Binoculars are a useful tool for identifying butterflies that are high up or in the distance. Follow this link to find out more: Big Backyard Butterfly Count.

Scientists use transects (marked or unmarked lines) to do counts, so that they survey the same place each year and can compare data from year to year. You can find out more about how to do this on Science Learn. The results would then be reported on the Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust website.

Reporting Butterfly and Moth sightings

If you have photographs then iNaturalist is a great place to report sightings and get help with ID. You can join two projects ‘NZ Moths and their caterpillars’ and ‘NZ Butterflies and their caterpillars’. This data can help scientists who are studying understand more about where these moths and butterflies can be found.

Forest Ringlet Reporting

The forest ringlet is New Zealand’s only forest butterfly. The butterflies appear in January or February. Threats are thought to be loss of habitat, predatory wasps, flies and introduced birds. 

A special research project being run by the Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust aims to get more information about forest ringlet butterflies to help scientists figure out how to protect them. In January I was lucky enough to spot one while tramping. It settled on a plant right in front of me and I was able to take the photograph you see below. I wasn’t quite sure it was a forest ringlet until I got home and looked it up, with its wings closed it looked different from my memory of the Wanted poster. I was excited to be able to report this sighting to the Trust and help with the conservation effort.

At Risk – Forest Ringlet butterfly

Sadly despite being At Risk these butterflies are not protected from collectors who buy and sell dead butterflies. So I can’t say the exact location, but it was in the Wellington region. 

Creating a Butterfly Garden

Here are some tips of what to plant to attract native butterflies to your garden. You might be surprised to see nettles on the list! That’s because our native admirals lay their eggs on nettles, and they are a great food source for the caterpillars. It’s important to choose plants for all stages of the insects life-cycle. While it’s tempting to plant non-natives but it’s always a good idea to check with Weedbusters as to whether a non-native is a harmful weed. For example, Buddleia is known as the butterfly bush, but it is also an invasive weed in many parts of New Zealand.

Monarch butterflies are recent arrivals in New Zealand (around 1870), they are thought to have been introduced into New Caledonia and then flown to Australia and New Zealand. Because they introduced themselves, they are described as ‘native’ rather than ‘introduced’.
Red Admiral – kahukura. Some adults overwinter to lay eggs in the spring, perhaps that’s why this one looks so battered.

What about Moths?

There are many more species of moth in New Zealand than butterflies but because they are often nocturnal and are mostly cryptic (camouflaged) they are harder to find and study. However maybe you’ll discover a moth that’s not yet been identified! Moth sightings can be reported on iNaturalist, however good photographs are important to getting an ID.

Magpie Moth – Mokarakara, they are active during the daytime
Pūriri moth – Pepetuna is NZ’s largest moth with a wingspan up to 15cm

Local entomological societies, sanctuaries or museums sometimes run special events or night time field trips to learn more about identifying moths. Several projects include Ahi Pepe MothNet (Dunedin), 100 Year Moth Project (Wellington).

Sources of more information

ID Guides

Organisations and interest groups

Other books and articles

  • An Exquisite Legacy: the life and work of New Zealand naturalist G. V. Hudson by George Gibbs Potton & Burton 2020
  • “Finding Forest Ringlets” Spring 2020 Forest and Bird magazine.
  • The Monarch Butterfly in New Zealand by George Gibbs, Entomological Society of New Zealand 2013, available from the Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust.