The secret life of urban butterflies

28 August 2018

Discover the secret world of butterflies through our latest urban biodiversity research.

Our City’s Little Gems saw a team of local and international experts turn their attention to some of Melbourne’s smallest and most vibrant residents, with big-picture goals.

Dr Holly Kirk, one of the researchers, said that studying insects can help us understand how human behaviour fits into the nature ‘puzzle’ and, ultimately, protect our planet.

‘The natural world is full of incredible things and when you look closely, everything – from tiny spiders to gigantic whales – has a fascinating story to tell,’ Holly said.

‘The natural world is full of incredible things when you look closely.’

‘Ecology is the study of how all the pieces of nature fit together, how those tiny spiders help to control pest insects and how whales fertilise the ocean with their poo.’

While butterflies are iconic animals we can encounter in our everyday lives, their multi-stage lifecycle means some aspects of their biology remain mysterious.

Our City’s Little Gems revealed where butterflies live in Melbourne and what flowers they might feed on. Some species were found to enjoy nectar from both native and non-native plants.

‘The best place in the City of Melbourne to find lots of butterflies is Royal Park, but the southern end of the Carlton Gardens and Kensington’s Women’s Peace Garden are also good places to look,’ Holly said.

‘Lots of people are familiar with the cabbage white butterfly, which is a very common pest species in Australia.

‘However, the most abundant species detected by our field researcher, Tessa Smith, was the little blue butterfly, a group of six species of delicate butterflies that were often observed with white clover flowers.’

Councillor Nicholas Reece, Deputy Chair of the Environment portfolio, said that insects form an integral part of our ecosystem, as both great decomposers of plant and animal matter, and a major food source for other insects, frogs, reptiles, birds and mammals.

‘If we don’t have healthy and thriving insect populations, we won’t have healthy ecosystems filled with other species that many people love, like birds,’ Cr Reece said.

‘This research shows that our city is full of vital insect life. Understanding this encourages us to appreciate our natural environment, make more sustainable choices and protect biodiversity for future generations.’

‘If we don’t have healthy and thriving insect populations, we won’t have healthy ecosystems.’

Holly said that protecting urban biodiversity results in numerous positive impacts – from inspiring local conservation volunteers to shaving a couple of degrees off the air temperature on hot days.

‘Having diverse and abundant wildlife in cities provides people with vegetative cooling, water management and pollination, and also improves physical and mental wellbeing,’ Holly said.

‘For me, urban biodiversity is without equal in fostering excitement, curiosity and love for the world around you.

‘After all, it’s much easier for a child to see honeyeater birds and butterflies feeding on a flowering shrub in their local garden than it is to watch herds of zebra and rhinoceros grazing on an African savannah.’

Our City’s Little Gems is supported by the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program through the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub.

You can view the results on our new, interactive Biodiversity Visual website and on our Open Data platform.


  • Visit the butterflies section of our Biodiversity Visual website to learn more.
  • Share knowledge about urban biodiversity with children using The Little Things that Run the City, a picture book we created following a previous insect research project.
  • Build a butterfly garden in your backyard or on your balcony. Native grasses and daisies make good homes for caterpillars before they transform, and native plants like Goodenia ovata can provide nectar for adult butterflies. The Zoos Victoria website offers more great tips.
  • Join our Citizen Forester program to help us create resilient, healthy and diverse urban landscapes.

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