Stinging nettles planted to revitalise red admiral butterfly population

Red admiral butterflies are not as common as they once were.
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Red admiral butterflies are not as common as they once were.

It is hoped a prickly plant regarded as a weed by many gardeners will prove to be a haven to  a  native butterfly.

Stinging nettles have been planted on a patch of ground no bigger than half a tennis court in Manor Park, Lower Hutt, in an effort to boost the red admiral population. 

Conservationist and Lower Hutt Forest and Bird committee member Gerry Brackenbury said he hoped the patch of nettles could become a sanctuary for the red admirals which were once very common all over the country.

Gerry Brackenbury with some of the freshly planted native nettles.
MATTHEW TSO/STUFF

Gerry Brackenbury with some of the freshly planted native nettles.

He and a small group of volunteers have been planting native nettles, a favourite food of red admiral caterpillars, in an effort to encourage the butterflies to lay their eggs on the plants.

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The nettles can give unsuspecting victims a painful sting, but that is why caterpillars like them. They are food for the growing caterpillars and provide protection from predators. 

The stinging nettle, or urtica incisa, is a favourite food of the red admiral caterpillar.
MATTHEW TSO/STUFF

The stinging nettle, or urtica incisa, is a favourite food of the red admiral caterpillar.

"We have to be careful with them as they can give you a very nasty sting."

The first 25 plants went into the ground two weeks ago. The group has more being grown from seed at the Upper Hutt Forest and Bird nursery which will be ready to be planted next year.

Brackenbury has always been interested in natural history and has been involved with conservation in New Zealand ever since he emigrated from the United Kingdom in the 1970s. Last year he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to conservation.

He started the red admiral project earlier this year. "We only have about 20 species of butterfly in New Zealand and the red admiral is one of the more beautiful and grander of them"

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The project was kickstarted when the group received $2000 from a private donor.

 Sourcing the native stinging nettles was one of the most difficult parts of the project.

"Most nurseries don't grow them for obvious reasons but it's no different to planting other native species."

George Gibbs, research associate at Victoria University School of Biological Sciences and an expert on New Zealand butterflies, said it was likely the red admiral population had declined in recent times, but they were not yet at critical levels.

"I think there are probably less than there used to be, but they are still here and not regarded as endangered."

Red admirals could be absent from areas for long periods of time and could reappear quite suddenly for no apparent reason.

He said the population declines were likely due to the widespread removal of nettles from lawns and parks, and predation from parasitic wasps on red admiral pupae.

Gibbs had heard of a couple of other groups planting nettles in Kapiti and said those groups had had almost instant success.

He encouraged any efforts to boost the red admiral population.

"People love butterflies. The more people plant the right sort of plants, the more butterflies we will get back."

 - Hutt News

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