How to help one of nature’s most beautiful pollinators
By Beth Meyer
Legend tells us that whispering a wish to a butterfly and then releasing it to carry the wish to the heavens will make it come true. Many ancient civilizations also held butterflies in high regard, believing they symbolized the human soul. One of nature’s most perfect examples of transformation and growth, butterflies delight us with their silent flight and beautiful wings, but many facts about these seemingly delicate creatures still remain a mystery.
Butterflies are classified as members of the insect order Lepidoptera, which also includes moths and silk worms. Butterflies are important pollinators and essential partners in the ecological balance of nature, able to memorize routes from flower to flower while remaining undisturbed by nearby noise because they are unable to hear. They only fly in the daylight and can be seen most often during the warmest hours of the day. They rely on their huge compound eyes, which are especially sensitive to ultraviolet light and infrared wavelengths, to see in all directions, find food sources, and locate mates. The largest butterfly, Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, has a twelve-inch wingspan and is common to New Guinea; the smallest, the Western Pygmy-blue of Southern California, has a wingspan of only half an inch.
Thirteen of the 700 butterfly species that live in North America are year round natives to New Mexico, and many others migrate through our state. On any given day during the summer, East Mountain observers can spy a number of these species, including swallowtails, queens, checkerspots, skippers, cabbage whites, fritillary, monarchs, and the official New Mexico state butterfly, the Sandia Hairstreak.
Unfortunately, butterfly numbers have been steadily declining since the 1990s. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a total of 23 species are currently designated as endangered or threatened. Butterflies are suffering from loss of habitat, invasive species, pollution, and changes in the climate. Their complex life cycles and dependency on certain plant species add to this challenge.
The most alarming declines are seen in monarch butterfly populations. With their beautiful orange, yellow, and black wings that resemble stained glass, the monarch is one of the most well-known butterfly species on earth. They also have one of the most unique migration patterns—as well as a complicated lifecycle, producing up to four generations each year. After the first three generations spend the spring and summer in northern climates, the last of the four yearly generations of adult monarchs will fly between 1,500 to 3,000 miles southward to the mountains of Central Mexico, or as in the case of monarchs west of the Rocky Mountains, toward the California coast. This inherited drive to return to the same wintering sites that their great-great-grandparents left the previous spring remains a mystery to humans, but is, nevertheless, a spectacular sight.
Unfortunately, due to habitat loss and the decimation of milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s sole food source, this species is in serious trouble. While their populations have been declining since the mid 1990s, the last three years have seen the most alarming drops. By the winter of 2013–2014, monarch numbers had decreased by 90 percent over a 20-year period. According to Monarch Watch, an education, research, and conservation organization, it is a decline comparable to what would happen if 15 acres covered in butterflies were reduced to a mere one-and-a-half acres.
For many years, monarchs faced loss of habitat due to illegal logging in Mexico. Fortunately, beginning in 2007, the Mexican government began a program of better law enforcement and providing better economic alternatives to the loggers. The government has also created the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve to educate the public and protect the area for the butterflies.
While drought and excessive heat have also played a role, the greatest current threat is the widespread use of herbicides, which kill milkweed. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, since the year 2000, over 100 million acres of milkweed-laden habitat on farmland, open areas, and along roadsides in the U. S. has been lost, and millions more acres have been used for development. A conservation initiative sponsored by livemonarch.org and monarchwatch.org can help guide those interested in planting milkweed to varieties that will thrive in the East Mountain area. Seeds and starter plants can also be ordered from these websites.
Today, a wide variety of scientists, universities, zoos, natural history museums, and conservation groups are focusing their efforts on educating the public, restoring habitat, and even raising generations of butterflies, including monarchs, in captivity to be reintroduced into the wild. In recent years, butterfly exhibits have raised public awareness, and volunteers have been involved in observing, monitoring, and counting butterfly populations at events like the North American Butterfly Association’s annual count.
One of every three bites of the food we eat has been pollinated by an insect according to Tatia Veltkamp, owner and director of Wings of Enchantment Butterfly Farm in Albuquerque. “People shouldn’t be afraid to plant milkweed just because of the word “weed” says Veltkamp. “It is crucial that monarch caterpillers have access to their only food source.”
One of the most important things a layperson can do to help reverse declines in butterfly populations is plant a butterfly-friendly garden. That means choosing varieties that provide space for the butterflies to lay their eggs, a place for their chrysalises to form, food for the resulting caterpillars, and nectar for the adults.
Starting with familiar native plants, like penstemon, desert four o’clocks, and sunflowers, is always best, says Rob Yaksich, developer of the Community Pollinator Habitat at the Rio Grande Nature Center. “Butterflies like showy flowers in bright colors with big landing pads,” he says. The Pollinator Habitat also includes three types of milkweed for the monarchs and queens.
And while it’s easy to appreciate the elegance and beauty of adult butterflies as they float and flutter around our gardens, the baby of the family, the lowly caterpillar, is often despised as a garden pest. It is important to keep in mind that, much like the Ugly Duckling in the children’s fairytale, those slimy, leaf-eating pillagers mature into the delightful creatures that everyone loves. To that end, says Yaksich, “We also plant parsley, dill, anise, and fennel, which are favorite food plants for the caterpillars of black and anise swallowtails, common throughout New Mexico.”
Butterflies need nectar throughout the entirety of their lifespan, so gardeners should aim for a variety of plants that bloom continuously throughout the season—different shrubs, perennials, biennials, and annuals will also help attract a wider variety of winged visitors. Butterfly gardens should be in full sun from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, as this is optimal feeding time. The sun also helps butterflies warm their wings for flight, so placing large flat stones in the garden is a good idea, as is providing an area of damp sand or gravel. Water from those puddles provides butterflies with nutrients and minerals they don’t otherwise get from nectar. And it goes without saying to avoid the use of pesticides.
Butterflies love all colors, but they are especially drawn to yellow and purple. Just a few examples of yellow flowers to consider for our East Mountain gardens are sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, gaillardia, marigolds, and golden alyssum. Purple blooming plants that do well in our climate include the butterfly bush, coneflowers, asters, Russian sage, petunias, and lavender.
A butterfly garden can be any size, from a window box to a corner of the yard to a large untended area on the property. Butterflies seeking nectar will follow a flower’s scent, so planting fragrant flowering plants such as the chocolate flower, Jupiter’s beard, and butterfly bush are just a few possibilities. Of course, drought tolerance is always an important consideration in the East Mountain area as well. Low-maintenance plants like butterfly weed, coreopsis, globe thistle, sedum, and catmint are all a treat for butterflies.
Numerous resources on developing a butterfly garden or joining the effort to help prevent the declining butterfly population can be found in your local library, and on the Internet. The National Wildlife Federation, Monarch Watch, Birds and Blooms magazine, Wings of Enchantment.com and the Live Monarch Foundation are among some of the best.
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