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Butterflies and bees at Chartwell

Male orange tip butterfly, with orange-tipped white wings, feeding on nectar on lilac-coloured cuckooflower at Brockhampton Estate, Herefordshire
Male orange tip butterfly feeding on nectar at Chartwell, Kent | © National Trust Images/Rob Coleman

There is a history of nurturing butterflies and bees at Chartwell. Churchill had a passion for butterflies from an early age, which grew into commissioning the Butterfly House at Chartwell in which he hatched and released different varieties. There are also records of him buying beekeeping equipment and hives being located in the grounds. Read on to discover more about their history and what we are doing to ensure we provide habitats and flowers to support them.

Butterflies at Chartwell

The connection between Chartwell and butterflies is a strong one, starting with Sir Winston Churchill’s love of the small creatures and one we still continue here today through our butterfly border.

Churchill’s connection

Since he was a young man, Sir Winston Churchill had a fascination with butterflies. As a soldier serving out in India in the 4th Hussars, he picked up the hobby of entomology, creating a collection of colourful butterflies such as purple emperors, white admirals and swallowtails.

This fascination continued and after he moved to Chartwell, he decided to ensure his garden would become a haven for all wildlife, including butterflies, building his very own Butterfly House in 1946.

The Butterfly House

Originally a game larder used for hanging meat, Churchill and his architect, Philip Tilden, converted the small building to a summer house in 1924 by removing the east wall. It stayed as such until it was converted again to begin the conservation of his butterflies.

With advice from local butterfly expert, L. Hugh Newman, who owned a butterfly ‘farm’ in nearby Sidcup, Churchill raised and released butterflies including green-veined whites, speckled woods, peacocks, and later the rare, but local, black-veined white and the continental clouded yellow.

Two visitors reading the interpretation in the Butterfly House at Chartwell, Kent
Butterfly house at Chartwell, Kent | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

Nectar-rich planting

To support the butterflies already visiting the garden, new butterfly friendly flowers and plants were soon introduced to the grounds. Red and white valerian, buddleia, hebe, lavender and sedum were all planted to encourage the butterflies to visit. A fantastic source of nectar, these plants soon made the garden a great place to spot butterflies. Newman even encouraged the Churchills to grow fennel near the lake to encourage a butterfly colony.

Churchill would sit and wait for the butterflies to emerge from their chrysalides within his Butterfly House before opening the doors so they could enjoy his beautiful garden.

Conservation today

Today, we continue to encourage the butterflies to Chartwell, with the long path between the pet cemetery and the house, called the butterfly border, recently replanted with salvias, geranium and lavender to attract and support butterflies.

Orange-tip butterflies can be seen feeding on the delicate pink flowers of lady’s smock above the croquet lawn. Ivy-covered walls offer shelter for over wintering brimstones and the early flowers are perfect for the tiny holly blue.

Chartwell’s bees

Bees play a crucial role at Chartwell, pollinating the fruits, flowers and trees grown in the garden, from the orchard to the Rose Garden. Discover how we look after them and how you can help them in your own gardens too.

The history of bees at Chartwell

Beekeeping was always a part of Winston Churchill’s life at Chartwell. There are records of him purchasing beekeeping equipment and his hobby goes back to before the war.

Although beekeeping hasn’t always been continuous at Chartwell, as there were substantial breaks, it has always been brought back again. The current bee population is therefore not directly descended from those that lived here in Churchill’s time.

Checking the beehives at Attingham Park, Shropshire
Checking the beehives at Chartwell, Kent | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

Volunteer beekeepers

At Chartwell there are six beehives in the private orchard, as well as four non-active replicas in the Walled Garden, so you can get an idea what the real beehives look like. The hives are most active in mid-summer when there are up to 40,000 bees in each hive. This drops down to around 10,000 in the winter.
Every Friday volunteers come and look after the bees. They are fully trained and required to take the beekeepers basic exam. They inspect the hives to ensure the comfort and health of the bees.

Caring for bees

At Chartwell we also have some feral bee colonies living out in the woodland. Although not looked after by us in the same way as the honeybees, we keep an eye on them and are thrilled to see they are showing more resilience against the varroa, an external parasitic mite that attacks and feeds on the honeybees, which is unfortunately a threat to bees across the world.

Top tips for bee-care at home

One of the best ways to help bees is to plant bee friendly plant species. Ivy is recommended as a great source of nectar in autumn. This helps bees get through the winter. Brambles can be a good choice for their nectar in the summer. Honeybees also need pollen for their protein; anything that has catkins in early spring will work.

Try to grow a range of plants that will provide a continuous flowering period from early spring all the way to September.

It’s easy to forget that many of the plants we consider weeds support wildlife so try to leave certain areas of the garden undisturbed and relax the weeding a bit. Nature will take its course and provide our little friends with plenty of nutrition.

Honey harvesting

Honey harvesting takes place at the end of August. Volunteers only take the surplus amount, as the bees make too much for themselves.

First, the beekeepers remove all the capping – the beeswax that seals off the honey. Once uncapped, they place the frames into a honey extractor, which removes the honey through centrifugal force by spinning them around.

The honey produced has won several awards from The British Beekeepers Association.

A long view of the red brick house at Chartwell in Kent with a sweeping lawn running up to the terrace of the house and trees surrounding the grounds

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