Last spring, my children and I took on the task of creating from scratch a butterfly garden in the front yard of our property. It was a project I had been considering for a few years and with a Boy Scout gardening merit badge in the future for my boys, it was the right time. I had been reading over the last few years about the dramatic decline of the Monarch and this Boy Scout project brought my concerns to the forefront. As our research began, we found out very quickly that planting milkweed, although very important to the butterfly, was just one of many plants that butterflies need. Actually, butterflies need at least two different types of plants – those that provide nectar for the adults to eat (nectar plant) and those that provide food for their offspring (host plant). For example, the Black Swallowtail Butterfly, found here on Delmarva, enjoys Joe Pye Weed, Aster, Alfalfa, Thistles, Butterfly Bush and Zinnias. While in its caterpillar stage it eats Parsley, Dill, Celery, Parsnip and Fennel.
Of course, we wanted to attract the infamous Monarch but we also decided it would be equally important to attract some other native butterflies as well. Research completed, we gathered our plants together from several local nurseries and started some seeds. It was then that my son, Joshua, made a startling revelation: our garden was not only going to attract butterflies, but bees as well! Joshua is allergic to bees, which was a consideration, and thus our plan needed review. We decided to plant the butterfly garden a good distance from the house and we added a soaker hose system so Joshua would not have to get in amongst the foliage to water. Garden tarps were placed to inhibit weeding so his contact would be minimal. He would become our master observer. The project continued. Our research led us to plant a garden full of Purple Aster, Milkweed, Joe Pye Weed, Butterfly Bush, Purple Cone Flowers, Black Eyed Susans, Golden Rod, Gladiolas, Dill, Parsley, Blue Azuratum, Dianthus, Yellow Marigolds, Red Begonias and Lantula.
While it was fun to watch the plants grow and bloom as spring turned into summer, we did not see any butterflies until, one day in mid July, while out playing in the yard, Joshua spotted a butterfly. “Mom!” he yelled bursting through the screen door, “I saw one! Come and see for yourself!” His energy was palpable and so I followed him out to the garden only to be knocked into by Will, my other son, who was also on his way to joyfully announce “the sighting.” The butterfly flew in a haphazard pattern like a tiny little drunken bird. I gave Will my cell phone and he danced and jumped around the yard trying to get a snapshot of what appeared to be a Viceroy butterfly. “I got it! I don’t have it!” he yelled as he flitted about to and fro trying to capture a picture of our distinguished visitor.
From that day on, the sightings increased dramatically. We saw Viceroys, Black Swallowtails, Tiger Swallowtails, Clouded Sulphurs, Little Coppers, Variegated Fritillaries, Baltimore Checkerspots, Red Spotted Purples but only one very enthusiastic sighting of a spirited Monarch. We also witnessed an increase in bees, wasps and dragonflies. The icing on the cake, though, was a surprise sighting of a hummingbird feeding on a yellow Gladiola. So, while our intention was to plant a butterfly garden, in reality we planted a pollinator garden. Which then naturally led to an investigation into bees.
Along with the plight of the Monarch, bees, a fellow pollinator, have also shared front page news, most recently with a UN Report released in February 2016. This was an extensive and collaborative report that concluded that 40% of invertebrate pollinator species (such as bees and butterflies) are facing extinction. About 75% of the world’s food crops, the report notes, depend, at least partly, on pollination. But the one fact that brings it all home is this statistic: “One in every three mouthfuls of food in the American diet is, in some way, a product of honeybee pollination – from fruit trees to coffee beans. And because bees are dying at a rapid rate (42% of bee colonies collapsed in the United States alone in 2015), our food supply is at serious risk.
Why is this happening? While many factors have been attributed to the decline of pollinators, the most devastating are:
Loss of habitat: specifically the disappearance of diverse wildflowers and milkweeds.
Use of pesticides: especially insecticides such as neonicotinoids.
Disease: Commercially reared bees for agriculture are transmitting diseases to wild populations. Additionally, bees already weakened by pesticides are more vulnerable to disease.
Climate Change: Fluctuating temperatures and weather extremes have caused plants to shift their schedules. When bees come out of hibernation, the flowers they need to feed on have already bloomed and died.
Even with the pervasive news reports about the decline of our pollinators, not everyone pays attention or takes the warnings to heart. In an act of extreme ignorance last September, the state of South Carolina wiped out 2.5 million bees while spraying Naled, a common insecticide that kills mosquitoes on contact. The United States began using Naled in 1959, according to the EPA, which notes that the chemical dissipates so quickly it is not a hazard to people. That said, human exposure to Naled during spraying “should not occur.” This spraying took place with minimal warning to its inhabitants even though the state health department reported that no one has yet acquired the Zika Virus from a local mosquito bite.
While some efforts have been made by the government to address the pollinator crisis, we cannot look to or count on the slow wheels of the bureaucracy to adequately address this problem and we shouldn’t. The truth is, we as individuals can impose more impact on this problem than many realize. We can, in our own backyards, create pollinator ecosystems that can have direct influence upon the world in which we live. You don’t have to sow your entire backyard in wildflowers, although that would be pretty cool, to invite the butterfly, the bee, the bat and the hummingbird into your corner of the planet. Maybe you start with a butterfly bush and some marigolds. Maybe next year, track down some milkweed and invest in our perennial state flower, the Black Eyed Susan. Maybe you plant nothing new, but make a commitment not to use pesticides. Maybe you decide to look into the joys of bee keeping. Even if you don’t have a yard, you can have a positive impact on the welfare of pollinators. By simply buying some organic fruits and vegetables, you increase the demand for food grown without pesticides.
The butterfly garden my boys and I planted last year was relatively small, but its rewards have been great. It has made us tune in even more to the nature around us and what positive impact we may have on it. It truly was a case of “if you plant it, they will come.” The butterfly garden reminds my children and me to pay attention to that which surrounds us and invite ourselves to determine our role in the fate of our own food supply.
About a year ago, a very famous photographer passed away. His name was Kjell B. Sandved. He was an avid nature photographer that had a particular interest in butterflies. He captured, over the course of many years, all the letters of the alphabet as found on the wings of butterflies.
He once said, “Nature’s message was always there and for us to see. It was written on the wings of butterflies.”
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering and Rootin’ Tootin’ No Gluten Foods. They have four children, of which all four are Gluten Intolerant. The family also lives with two severe nut allergies and a fish/shellfish allergy. Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
The Xerces Society (xerces.org)
“Butterflies of Delmarva” by Elton N. Woodbury 1994, Delaware Nature Society
Report: “More Pollinator Species in Jeopardy, Threatening World Food Supply” by Merit Kennedy February 26, 2016 (npr.org)
The Buzz About Colony Collapse Disorder by Alexandra Zissu December 31, 2015. National Resources Defense Council. nrdc.org
“ ‘Like it’s been nuked’: millions of bees dead after South Carolina sprays for Zika Mosquitoes.” September 1, 2016 The Washington Post
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center wildflower.org
“Battle For Butterflies” By Laura Tangley National Wildlife Federation April/May 2015
“Avoiding the Sting of Pesticides” by Josh Bollinger May 18, 2016 The Star Democrat
“Is the USDA Silencing Scientists?” Brandon Keim November 3, 2015 The Atlantic theatlantic.com
Local Nurseries with Pollinator Plants:
Eastern Shore Nurseries, Easton. easternshorenurseries.com
Ball Greenhouses, Preston. 410-673-7361
Environmental Concern, St. Michaels. wetland.org
Adkins Arboretum, Ridgely. adkinsarboretum.org
Garden Treasures, Easton. www.gardentreasuresmd.com