Some decades ago, before the internet, I recall leafing through a seed catalog. Each page was designed to grab attention with color-saturated photos of gleaming ripe tomatoes of every size, toothsome ears of golden corn, curious gourds, prize-winning enormous pumpkins, and a rainbow of dreamy flowers.
A headline in the upper corner of a page caught my eye: “Make Your Neighbors Jealous with a Butterfly Flower Garden.”
I thought it was the stupidest sales pitch. Incredulous, I started to read the description of the flowers, but I soon threw it aside. As if making your neighbors jealous should be the motivation to plant flowers, I scoffed. I can still feel the disgust and irritation when I reflect on that moment so long ago.
I never imagined that I would one day raise Monarch butterflies. Yet now, over the course of several years, I have raised them from eggs and released thousands. How many? I’m not sure. I kept track of daily releases in my spiral-bound desk calendar and noted the numbers of males and females. I was hoping to digitize my data during the off-season, but the off-season never arrived. Climate change triggered the premature arrival of spring and disrupted butterfly life cycles.
A warm and dry February kicked off an early season. Butterflies are cold-blooded and unable to muster the internal heat to fly on damp and gloomy days. They thrive in the sun. I strolled along the garden path and admired their velvety orange and black wings, outstretched, basking in the warmth of the sidewalk, or along the brick wall. The older butterflies were just as beautiful in shades of muted copper or saffron as they are when displaying the bright flash of fresh orange wings. All the butterflies’ colorful wings seemed designed to capture the imagination as they were circling, spiraling, and chasing or grabbing a mate.
The garden was thirsty. I maneuvered the hose and watered plants while the butterflies’ effortless glide and swoop through the garden brought ease and calm to my heart. More days of warmth equated to more butterfly activity. I was happy to see them, but it was still winter and therefore the food supply was limited for the local population of Monarchs.
Female Monarchs lay eggs only on milkweed plants. The caterpillars hatch and start to munch. They need milkweed to survive. The problem is that native milkweed plants are dormant in February. Fortunately, I had many non-native milkweed plants to feed the newly hatched caterpillars. Every plant was crawling with ravenous caterpillars on leaves that were rapidly diminishing. Not only in my garden, but everywhere in the neighborhood, milkweed plants looked bleak.
I found a plant that was stripped down to the bare stems. Seven caterpillars of various sizes were chewing on the stem tips. A few raggedy leaves remained. To make a bad situation worse, some of the plants were also being attacked by colonies of yellow aphids. I slid my fingers over immature seed pods and tender leaves to squash them and soon my fingers were stained yellow and sticky.
I began to hear from concerned neighbors who also had caterpillar-laden milkweed plants in their gardens, creating a situation in which milkweed was in short supply. It was heartening to meet people that care about the critters, but I wasn’t in a position to foster all those caterpillars. I took in a handful. Time was of the essence. Instead of sitting at the computer to fill out a butterfly spreadsheet from previous years, I was scrambling to feed the hungry and short-lived creatures.
Make my neighbors jealous? My yard is more of an anonymous gift to my neighborhood. The butterflies weave their way through all our gardens, even though some houses only have boring juniper shrubs and wood chip lawns. Granted, it takes work to establish and maintain a garden. Gophers wage war from underground. Deer and turkeys have no regard for a gardener’s plans. Plant all the prize-winning flowers to attract butterflies and there is no guarantee you’ll see even one flutter through your domain. They are wild and free, as it should be. There is no place for jealousy. They cannot be possessed.
For centuries, many people have assumed nature was infinite, with an endless supply of butterflies in every color of the rainbow. Countless colorful insects from all around the globe were captured, fumigated, and pinned down with their delicate wings spread open. I can’t imagine how many dead butterflies are housed in dusty cabinet drawers in museums around the world. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History has a collection containing an estimated 30,000 drawers and roughly 14.5 million specimens. This is just one collection. Don’t we have enough dead butterflies? Ditto for iridescent jeweled dragonflies; spikey, horned beetles; leaf insects that mimic flat, leathery leaves; and a multitude of other astounding insects.
The small Xerces Blue Butterfly was once a common sight in the region where I live. It’s been about 80 years since their iridescent blue wings were seen fluttering about the coastal sand dunes of San Francisco. The Xerces Blue is considered to be the first insect in North America utterly annihilated by urban development. Is the species truly extinct? It’s long been unclear if the Xerces Blue was its own species, or simply an isolated population of another, more widespread species of blue butterfly.
In their quest to see if the Xerces Blue really was its own separate species, researchers delved into the massive collection of approximately 4.1 million pinned insects at The Field Museum in Chicago. Forceps in hand, entomologist Corrie Moreau pinched off a tiny piece of the abdomen of a 93-year-old Xerces butterfly. Despite the DNA being degraded from age, the team could compare selected Xerces genes with those of other closely related blue butterflies. They found that the extinct Xerces Blue was genetically distinct, thus warranting classification as a species. This confirmed that it was a distinct species that humans drove to extinction.
“We’re in the middle of what’s being called the insect apocalypse—massive insect declines are being detected all over the world,” says Moreau, “And while not all insects are as charismatic as the Xerces blue butterfly, they have huge implications for how ecosystems function. Every loss of an insect has a massive ripple effect across ecosystems.”
For too many of us, nature is the wallpaper on a computer screen. Water flows from a faucet with the twist of the wrist. Butterflies may float across our field of vision, if we are lucky and if we even notice. In our “civilized” world, we barely have a relationship with Nature, unwilling or unable to recognize that we are part of its breathing fabric. And so, Nature is thought of as a collection of things, commodities or specimens, to buy, to sell, to collect, to impress and make your neighbors jealous.
“What can I do? How can I help?” There are no easy answers. I believe that each one of us can begin by opening our eyes to what is in front of us every day and recognize our kinship with Nature. For me, it was eye-opening to immerse myself in learning how to care for butterflies.
When I moved here, over ten years ago, the yard only had weeds. I planted seeds and cuttings. Soon, bees were visiting lavender, finches were eating rosemary seeds, and hummingbirds zoomed in to nectar on salvia. One day, while on a walk, I grabbed a handful of silky milkweed seed fluff and when I arrived home, I pressed the seeds in the soil. One of the seeds sprouted and grew. Months later, I was thrilled when I saw a female Monarch laying eggs on the milkweed in my garden! I now think of my yard as habitat, not to make my neighbors jealous but to create the conditions of a waystation, a cafeteria, and sometimes a home for future generations of insects and birds whose lives make our world so special.