Butterfly absence

Have you seen many butterflies this summer?

Probably not: the cool, wet summer really knocked butterfly numbers down, and most cottagers have seen very few butterflies this year.

But it’s more than just weather that’s causing their numbers to decline. Fortunately, there are things we can do to help.

Most of the focus on declining butterfly numbers has been on monarchs, and with good reason: their epic annual migration to and from Mexico is one of the wonders of the natural world, but it also leaves them extremely vulnerable. They need food and shelter all along their route, and they’ve been losing it for years. Monoculture farming has turned huge swaths of North America into practically unbroken fields of wheat, corn and soybeans, which offers no food to migrating butterflies. Much of the land is treated with pesticides that can kill butterflies directly or at the least wipe out the weeds that they can feed on as they travel.

Monarch numbers dropped from an estimated one billion in 1997 to 33 million in 2013. Since then, a coalition of farmers, conservationists, First Nations groups and government agencies have begun creating migration corridors for the monarchs, and their numbers seem to be on the rebound.

But while monarchs are spectacular migrants, most butterflies stay much closer to home. And this is where we all can make a real difference.

There are over a hundred species of butterfly in Ontario, as well as a great many moths. Some of them migrate;  others die at the end of each summer, leaving their eggs to overwinter and emerge in spring.

None of our butterflies are believed to be in danger of extinction, but all could use a bit of extra help to bring their numbers up.

Fortunately, that’s easy to provide: all you need is to keep butterflies in mind when gardening.

Butterflies need four things from our gardens: nectar plants for the adults, specific food plants for the larvae, sunshine, and shelter. It goes without saying that they also need a home free of pesticides – just another reason that we don’t use pesticides at Water’s Edge.

Heritage plants and native species are usually the best choices for feeding adult butterflies. Lilacs, Joe-Pye Weed, Black-eyed Susan, and the appropriately named Butterfly Bush are all excellent nectar sources. Hybrids, such as tea roses and geraniums, usually produce much less nectar.

Larvae, like many human children, are more picky about their foods. Female butterflies will often travel a long distance to find the specific plants where they can lay their eggs so that the young caterpillars have something to eat when they emerge. Milkweed is the plant for monarchs – it’s the only plant their larvae will feed on – and its flowers are also a rich source of nectar for other butterflies.

Other butterflies have equally specific needs. Cabbage Whites and other members of the White butterfly family love mustard plants; Swallowtails seek out carrots and related plants like dill and parsnip; Painted Ladies and Red Admirals need thistles or nettles.

You don’t need to fill the garden with these plants: a few tucked away at the back of the bed or along the fringes of the property are all it takes, particularly if they’re growing in a sheltered, sunny spot.

If you’d like to increase your butterfly numbers next year, let us know: we’re happy to add some attractants to your gardens and help our fluttering friends to thrive.

Posted in In the Garden.