The Power to Make a Difference

Monarch Migration, San Bernard Game Preserve - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

Monarch Migration, San Bernard Game Preserve - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

One day, about twenty-years-ago, I took my camera and went to San Bernard Game Preserve in Brazoria County, TX. It’s close to the coast and very remote, but the picture opportunities are wonderful. It was late in the afternoon. The setting sun was turning everything a warm golden color, and as I drove down the small road that encircles the marsh, I found the most amazing sight – a tree covered with monarch butterflies.

I do not believe anyone could experience what I did that day and not be touched by it, yet, opportunities like this are becoming much rarer because the lifestyle our society has adopted is killing off butterflies, bees, and other pollinating insects.

There have been many times in my life that I have watched a news report and felt frustrated by it because of my inability, as one person, to change the situation. Other than casting a vote, contributing money, or protesting, there are very few legal options for an individual who wants to make a difference. And those options are even more limited for me as a full-time caregiver.

Nature is important to me. It should be important to all of us because if we kill off all the other species, we will also be killing off ourselves. So, when I discovered that butterfly numbers had decreased so drastically that some species were being put on the endangered list, I began researching.

In the latest Horticulture magazine (July/August 2017) there is an article on this very topic. It is called Success Story, and it’s about how the people in Florida refused to give up on the atalas butterfly. You see, the atalas was considered extinct, because the coonties, the atalas only host plant (the plant where the butterfly lays its eggs), was almost eradicated in the early twentieth century due to population growth and industrial harvesting practices. When landscapers discovered how versatile and sturdy the coonties were, they started using them in parking lot medians, and back yards all over Florida. As a result, the atalas population is now booming.

“In terms of saving an endangered species, atalas are the best example we have.’ Says Doug Talamy, professor of entomology at the University of Delaware and author of Bringing Nature Home and The Living Landscapes (with co-author Rick Darke).

Talamy is a fierce advocate of using native plants in landscaping, along with limiting pesticide use, in order to support wildlife.

“Ecosystems work best when we have a lot of native species,” he says. “It’s a community of living things. We need to save the common species too, before they become endangered.”

He notes that 96 percent of the songbirds in North America feed their young insects, even if the adults eat seeds and berries. The North American Bird Conservation Initiative found that 37 percent of the native birds on the continent are at risk of extinction. (Nesmith, 2017)

What will our world be like if we let all the butterflies become extinct? It won’t stop there. The magic and beauty of nature will begin to die.

The story of how the people in Florida saved the atalas butterfly is amazing. They didn’t have to petition or protest. They simply planted plants in their yards and told others about it, and they made a difference. I can do that too. I have the power to make a difference and so do you.

So, what do we have to do to get started? Well, the first thing we need to do is find out what butterflies are in our area. Dr. Tallamy is working with the National Wildlife Federation to develop a database that allows us to find the best native plants for the butterflies in our area, based on zip code. It will also tell you which butterflies are native to your area, and what their host plants are. (A beta version of the database is available at - see the link in References below.) I’m going to start by encouraging three types of butterflies to call my yard their home. The monarch, the American Snout- Gulf Fritillary, and the Common Buckeye.

The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus – Nymphalidae, Lepidoptera) uses milkweed and honey vine as its host. Milkweed is the host plant for twenty-one different butterfly species, so even though I’m focusing on only three butterfly species, by planting milkweed, I help others as well.

American Snout - Photo by Paul Davenport

American Snout - Photo by Paul Davenport

This is the American Snout, Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae – Nymphalidae, Lepidoptera). The only plant they will use as a host is the Passionflower.

Common Buckeye - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

Common Buckeye - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

This is the Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia – Nymphalidae, Lepidoptera). Since it is called common, it probably isn’t endangered, but I think it’s beautiful, so I picked it. It hosts on eight different plants: Beadtongue, verbena, Indian Paintbrush, Wild Petunia, False Foxglove, Speedwell, Snakeherb, and Bluehearts.

If you’re like me, you may not have any idea where to get the plants, but the National Wildlife Foundation website Native Plant Finder page will give a list of the native plant suppliers in your state, and many of the suppliers have websites so that you can shop over the Internet. (See link below.)

I’m taking this challenge. I want to make a difference – to save that sense of wonder it gives me when I see a butterfly flit across my yard. It won’t happen overnight. I’ll have to study their predators and learn how to plant native plants and keep them flourishing, but I can do it.

As I work through each phase of this goal I’ve set for myself, I will keep you informed so that you can learn right along with me. It doesn’t matter whether you have five acres, a small city lot, or a balcony – you can still do this. We have the power to make a difference, and if we use that power, perhaps one day we will walk into our yard and see this.

Migrating Beauties - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

Migrating Beauties - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

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