Celebrating National Insect Week in the East

Silver studded blue

Do you know your emperor moth from your purple hairstreak butterfly? Or how to spot the difference between a dragonfly and a damselfly? To mark National Insect Week this June, we’re taking flight for a look at just some of the amazing moths, butterflies and dragonflies that can be found fluttering at the places we care for in the East of England.

Caring for the habitats these insects need is all part of the day job for our rangers and gardeners and here they share more about what you might see nestled amongst the plantlife and whizzing through the air. 

Tracking change

Perhaps one of the most remote and challenging landscapes in the region, Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast provides the ideal habitat for hundreds of species of moth.

Rangers on the Ness work with a team of skilled volunteers to trap, record and release moths throughout the year, with more than 740 different species recorded since 2001, including 14 new additions to the list in 2017. All the data recorded is shared with national monitoring schemes to help contribute to a nationwide picture of moth population changes over time.

David Mason, Lead Ranger on Orford Ness revealed that creating the ideal conditions for such a variety of moths can mean taking a ‘less is more’ approach.

" Management sometimes involves not being too tidy, such as letting bushes and hedgerows grow and spread."
- David Mason

We also work to create a mosaic of habitat types around the lagoons by water control, mowing and grazing to accommodate a range of species and different parts of the insect life cycle.

The most common moth found on the Ness last year was the lunar underwing, a species that is common across most of the southern half of the UK. Much rarer arrivals spotted on the Ness last year included a plumed fan-foot and a scarce black arches, both are believed to have been blown over on winds from the continent and neither are thought to breed anywhere in the UK. The UK's only green butterfly, the green hairstreak, is also a visitor to the Ness. Although widespread throughout the country, these butterflies don't tend to visit gardens, so are not often spotted.

Green Hairstreak butterfly on apple blossom
Green Hairstreak butterfly
Green Hairstreak butterfly on apple blossom
Dragons and damsels

Head inland to Cambridgeshire and the changing landscape encourages different species to thrive. At Anglesey Abbey, the wildflower meadows come alive with the sight of butterflies like brimstone, small tortoiseshell, holly blue, speckled wood, red admiral and peacock. 

Assistant Head Gardener David Jordan has a series of top tips for anyone who wants to create a butterfly friendly space at home. "Be sure not to spray your garden with any chemicals and buy single flowered plants as the double-flower plants have no nectar," he advises.

"Watch out for herbaceous perennials, as winter seed heads will give insects a home and things to feed on. If you’ve got the space, something that will hold water will always attract insects as they’ll need to drink, and leave an area of lawn to grow long to provide a nice place for them to enjoy."

Head to Wicken Fen and you’ll find yourself in one of the best places to see dragonflies in the UK, with 22 species taking to the air here. On a warm summer’s day, you can see thousands of brightly coloured dragonflies performing their aerobatic flying displays along the waterways and ditches. Look out for the emperor dragonfly and the red eyed damselfly, which both breed here. 

Emperor Dragonfly
Emperor Dragonfly
Emperor Dragonfly

Did you know?

One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between dragonflies and damselflies is to wait for them to land. If they fold their wings closed along their abdomens they are damselflies, if they leave their wings flat open they are dragonflies. 

View from the top

Crossing the border into Norfolk, the vibrantly coloured purple hairstreak butterfly is the star of the show at coastal Sheringham Park. 

Climb to the top of the park’s gazebo for your best chance to see the butterflies in the summer months, particularly from the middle of July to late August. Look out for the males which have purple all over their wings, whilst the females have a small patch on the upper wing. 

Rob Coleman, Sheringham Park’s learning officer said: “Purple hairstreak butterflies aren’t rare, but the opportunity to observe them is. This butterfly spends almost all of its time up in the canopies of oak trees, where they feed on honeydew – a sugar-rich solution secreted by aphids. Honeydew is forced out of the anus of the aphids as their mouthparts pierce the phloem cells of the oak leaf, due to the high pressure in these vessels.” 

Male purple hairstreak butterfly at Sheringham Park
Purple hairstreak butterfly
Male purple hairstreak butterfly at Sheringham Park
Natural co-operation

Take trip along the coastline back to Suffolk and Dunwich Heath, where you’ll find some of the UKs rarer species, such as the silver-studded blue, a small blue butterfly which can be seen from June until August. 

And whilst the purple hairstreaks of Sheringham live high up in oak trees, the silver-studded blue prefers short vegetation, laying their eggs at the base of heather plans. 

In a demonstration of the natural world’s ability to co-operate, the larvae are protected from predators by teams of black ants. In return, the caterpillars secrete a sweet solution for the ants to feast on, thanks to their diet of heather shoots, buds and flowers.

When it comes to impressive size, few can compete with the emperor moth. With large peacock-eye markings on both the male and female moths, they are found on heathland and grassland scrub and Dunwich’s rangers create the ideal habitat with managed areas of bramble, hawthorn and blackthorn. 

Female emperor moth at Dunwich Heath
Female Emperor Moth
Female emperor moth at Dunwich Heath

Weird and wonderful insects