Remember that time we all were working from home? Did you start watching birds and butterflies? If you did, you are not alone. Businesses that sell birdseed and backyard butterfly supplies, as well as agencies that monitor bird and butterfly species, reported increases of more than 50%.
The National Audubon Society suggests that the peak numbers have slipped a little now that we are back in the office, but says that the numbers are still higher than in previous years.
For example, Wikipedia shows users searched for some bird species around 44,000 times in 2019 to 85,000 in 2020. The numbers from 2022 were a healthy 73,000.
While our interest was high on the butterfly front, environmentalists say the population of Monarch butterflies has declined between 20% and 70%. The broad spread, according to Monarch Joint Feature, is due to the massive migration pattern.
In 2022 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature added the migrating Monarch butterfly for the first time to its “red list” of threatened species and categorized it as “endangered.” Currently, in the U.S., the Monarch is not listed under the Endangered Species Act.
So what does all this mean for us? We can help build butterfly populations while enjoying their bright colors with the serenity and the smell of flowers.
Here is a list of things to consider in your garden from the National Wildlife Foundation:
- Colorful native flowers: Especially red, yellow, orange flowers. If you want bees too, add purple and blue colors.
- Nectar-producing flowers in the sun: Adult butterflies feed in direct sun.
- Continuous blooms: Plant flowers that bloom at different times for a steady food source.
- Resting place: Butterflies need sunshine to warm their wings. Flat rocks and stones will work.
- Something to drink: Butterflies congregate on wet sand and mud to drink water and take in nutrients. A shallow pan with damp coarse sand will work.
Another option is a butterfly puddling station: Create a mud puddle (or add water to sand) in a sunny spot of the yard and set a flat stone within it. Butterflies will sun themselves on the stone to raise their temperatures and will sip water from the puddle to supplement their nectar diets with the salts, vitamins and minerals they need.
We’re starting our own butterfly garden on the Channel 4 property, and we want you to join us on this journey!
We will be posting growth and release pictures as well as helpful info from experts so you too can help build a better and bigger pollinator population.
Once the butterflies are flocking to our flowers, we can all kick back with a brew and enjoy the view!
And we want to see your progress. Snap and share your photos with us under the Nature channel on SnapJAX!
More on milkweed
If everyone reading this planted one milkweed plant, the benefit would be palpable. Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) is the only plant monarch caterpillars eat, and it’s where the adult butterflies lay their eggs. Without it, the species simply could not exist.
“But not all milkweed is the same,” says Dawn Rodney, chief innovation and growth officer at the National Wildlife Federation in Reston, Virginia. For instance, “there is an invasive species called tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) that we’re seeing more and more, and people are not understanding that it does more harm than good.”
The non-native plant is problematic because it blooms for longer and, in temperate regions, does not die back. That can prevent butterflies from recognizing when it’s time to migrate, and it can spread deadly parasites to the next year's generation of caterpillars.
To choose the right milkweed, use the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder.
Adult monarchs need other plants too, specifically ones with nectar-bearing flowers. The National Wildlife Federation also has a Monarch Nectar Plant List tool, developed with Monarch Joint Venture and Xerces Society, to find plants appropriate for your location.
Choose plants native to your region for the highest-quality food source. Be sure to include late-season bloomers to provide monarchs with fuel for their annual fall migration.
Knowing the source of the plants you buy is important, too.
“There are a lot of growers that use different types of chemicals that are harmful to wildlife,” Rodney said, referring to pesticides and herbicides intended to keep plants attractive on retail shelves. When you bring treated plants home, and butterflies lay eggs on them, the caterpillars that follow will die when they munch the leaves.
Neonicotinoid pesticides are especially harmful to the species, Rodney said, as they can kill bees and adult butterflies that ingest the toxic pollen and nectar of treated plants.
Since treated plants aren’t labeled as such, Rodney advises asking garden center staff about their pest-management practices. Buying only from trusted, organic sources or growing your own plants from seed are other good options.
When we use chemicals on our plants, we accept beneficial insects, including monarchs, as collateral damage. We also endanger birds that eat those poisoned insects.
Even natural and organic pesticides can harm butterflies and other pollinators. But if you must use such a product, stick with insecticidal soaps, horticultural oils or Neem oil, and apply them only after dusk, when pollinators aren’t active. Unlike many synthetic chemicals, these products lose their effectiveness when dry, so the butterflies will be safer by morning.