10 Butterflies in a 1,000 miles

“We no longer hear crickets at night.”

It was a warm summer evening as I was socially distancing on the back porch of a suburban home with a former colleague and his family near Richmond, Virginia. All the memories of a southern summer evening came flooding back, but one element was missing- nature was silent. My friend’s wife disclosed, “A lot of our neighbors spray for mosquitoes”.

Richmond was the halfway stop on my journey from Central Pennsylvania to join my family on the outer banks of North Carolina. Round trip, the journey is just shy of 1,000 miles. The last time I set off for a journey this long by myself, was over 20 years ago, headed to Florida. Driving at night, the bug carnage on the car was so heavy, a carwash wouldn’t scrape the first layer off. You’d need a scrub brush and elbow grease or the “bug guts” would eat your clearcoat and cars’ paint.

As I traversed along the highway, a startling realization confirmed what was missing in my own pollinator habitat: (Cat-a-Pillar Haven, one of 30,000 registered Monarch waystations in North America) a lack of bugs in general. Last year in early July 2019, monarch butterflies were emerging from cocoons in my backyard. Sadly, my 1,000 mile journey in early July 2020 only produced 10 butterfly sightings, and 2 of those were in my yard upon return. I asked the followers of my Facebook video log, a simple question- “Have you seen any butterflies?” Most had not. I was starting to feel like a kid a Christmas- the cookies were out for Santa, but limited numbers of butterflies have arrived. It made me wonder, are the missing butterflies the canary in the coal mine?

Image for post
Image for post
Monarch emerges from chrysalis Monarch Waystation, Cat-a-Pillar Haven

This prompted me to reach out to the experts to weigh in. I sent personal messages to the heads of pollinator gardens, pollinator websites, and to the authority himself- Doug Tallamy, the author of “Nature’s Best Hope”. Doug is a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, and the authority on insects and wildlife habitat. He reassured me that our cold wet Pennsylvania spring likely was contributing to the butterflies late arrival, and not to give up hope. Other master gardeners and pollinator experts attributed the late arrival to the weather and illegal deforestation in their overwintering forest located in Mexico.

“I think I killed my butterflies!” followed by a sigh and a long silent pause on the other end of the phone. My longtime client, a Physician, had just purchased a beautiful eight-acre farm in central Florida. Mosquitoes overwhelmed him and his family in their new home, and they had done what they thought was the right thing to do, and called the state. The state sent a helicopter. And the spray from the helicopter resulted in no more bugs. But it also had an unintended consequence- there were no more no more butterflies. Sadly, mosquito “foggers” indiscriminately kill all insects.

There is a mistaken perception that you can remove one element you don’t want (in this case, mosquitoes) from the food chain without consequence. Spray to eliminate one insect or poison one vermin- you are likely to kill the good guys too (butterflies, lightening bugs, ladybugs and birds). With less food for your birds to eat (one nest of chickadees requires over 400 caterpillars a day) they won’t be able to survive on your property for long. Furthermore, even some native garden pages suggest getting rid of nuisance caterpillars via chemical means. BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) may not be dangerous for humans when you harvest your veggies, but it is devastating for caterpillars-which means it is devastating to birds who have nests full of fledglings.

Gardenthoughtfully Takes Flight

As a hobby gardener, I started documenting my pollinator waystation creation in the last year, video logging how to create a native plant paradise for pollinators. As the videos focused on the pollinators that were arriving, chomping, and emerging from my garden, the audience started asking lots of questions, and gardenthoughtfully.com (The Thoughtful Gardener on Facebook) took flight. Followers wanted to attract the wildlife they remembered from their youth.

Image for post
Image for post
Yellow Swallowtail on Bergamot

I love to teach people how to sustainably garden, especially to consider native plants to attract pollinators and to create habitat for woodland creatures. I am passionate about helping others create pollinator waystations, while increasing vegetable yield via attraction of efficient native pollinators. I am in the clinical research world during the day, and have been amazed to see universities studying and publishing articles on native pollinator efficiency, which supports the anecdotal evidence in my own backyard: Planting native pollinator plants with my veggies increases the yield (a recent study suggests by 30%). If you ate today- thank a pollinator- one out of every 3 bites of food is due to their hard work in the food web.

Gardening Becomes 2020’s #1 Hobby

Covid-19 made at-home gardening the #1 hobby in 2020. As the supply chain deteriorated, families embraced sustainability as well as creating a wildlife oasis in their own backyard. Many Americans would love to see more wildlife in their yards, but it will require a commitment to reducing the size of their lawn, removing non-native plants, and replacing invasives with keystone native plants that sustain wildlife. 95% of butterflies are host specific. Your yard, if filled with exotics, is akin to a picnic feast sitting in the hot sun- food for sure, but not likely food you’d consider eating. Most insect species are specialists, seeking out specific plants for hosting their eggs and for eating.

While dining outside recently, a monarch, who has just recently arrived after its family’s long migration (the longest of any insect on earth, as they overwinter in Mexico) crashed repeatedly into the glass window of the eatery. I gently scooped it up, and quickly realized there wasn’t one manicured bush that I could put it on to recover and take nectar. Short of putting it in my hot car and driving it to my home, the entire “landscape” present at this commercial building might as well have been a mirage in the Sahara Desert. Not one plant was native, and none contained flowers for the exhausted butterfly to nectar.

Most homeowners select plants for “show”. Exotic plants sustain little insect damage because local bugs/wildlife don’t eat it. Introduced “exotics” have a habit of spreading to natural areas at the expense of the native plant community. Take a walk in your native areas, or in a state/local/national park, and see if you can’t spot an invasive barberry. A common fixture in suburban neighborhood lawns, there is a mistaken understanding that it doesn’t “escape” into our “tiny forests” that border our properties. I spent a significant amount of my winter downtime cutting down invasive barberry, (still sold at many local plant stores) that had “escaped” via its berries that were eaten then deposited by birds in my tiny forest. Since I have started removing invasives diligently- the natives have rebounded (and a recent PA forestry study confirmed it). Spring in my tiny forest this year was ushered in by a carpet of flowering spring ephemerals that finally had the room to compete. During a recent walk, spicebush, oak leaves and other native bushes and tree leaves around me were happily being munched by caterpillars and native wildlife, but the barberry that had escaped my winter clean up showed no insect damage. This is not good news- Pennsylvania is #1 in the US for lyme disease, and barberry is known for harboring ticks. Were you to walk out of my tiny forest boundary into my neighbors, the barberries are almost an impenetrable thicket.

The Manicured Lawn is a Myth

We have been sold a myth that the perfectly manicured lawn is a status symbol of suburbia. Why should we consider ditching half of the lawn? Several considerations. Grass absorbs water poorly, less than 1 inch per hour, making runoff a reality. What isn’t readily apparent is that 60% of the chemicals that it takes to maintain the lawn are washed into our groundwater (Gulp!). 40% of the chemicals routinely utilized on our lawns are banned in European countries because they are carcinogenic. 75 clinical trials show a connection between lawn pesticides and cancer (specifically lymphoma) putting children and pets at risk.

Many hours of my childhood were spent playing kickball and hide and go seek in the clover strewn front yard with my brothers and neighborhood kids. Our lawn was filled with clover, a nitrogen fixer, meaning it keeps the lawn green naturally (and made a frequent appearance as braided bracelets and crowns in my youth). Dandelions provided innocent fun in the dispersal of seeds. Clover and dandelions are some of the first “useful weeds” to appear in the spring, providing much needed fuel for pollinators as they awaken from their winter slumber.

When you think deforestation, you probably think about the Amazon rain forest, but did you realize that over 95% of land east of the Mississippi in the US has been deforested? Further, the majority of the land is privately owned? Doug Tallamy suggests that this gives us landowners an opportunity to consider being a part of the “Home Grown National Park”. He recommends converting ½ of your current lawn area to native keystone plants- that will provide fuel and shelter for wildlife to create the most productive landscape possible. The goal of all homeowners should be downsizing the lawn to resemble a “area rug” and not “wall to wall carpeting”. By planting a “pollinator hedgerow” we can create contiguous habitat, even in the smallest of yards (consider the hellstrip, for example) to enable the pollinators to feed along their journey. Bonus, these “hedgerows” are effective at attracting good bugs, that act as an army to prevent bad bugs. For example the dragonfly is a mosquito destroyer, and can easily be attracted with appropriate native plants.

Image for post
Image for post
Black Morph Swallowtail on Joe Pye Weed

Your Best Resources

Am I suggesting you go outside and rip out everything non-native in your garden? Not at all. I am not a purist- you will find my grandmothers heirloom peonies happily growing in my yard- a native to Japan. The research suggests 70% is the ratio of native plants/shrubs/trees to exotics that you should aim for, to enable nestlings to have enough caterpillars to eat, and therefore, replace the previous generation. However, not all native plants are created equal. Doug Tallamy and his research students teamed up with National Wildlife Federation (1) to make it easy to identify by zip code the most productive host plants for your geography. The keystone plants identified in my area (Central PA), include native oaks, cherry and birch trees, sunflowers, paw paws, spicebush, asters and golden rods, as essential for consideration to provide a symphony of blooms, that will host enough insects to fuel the pollinators and birds during the gardening season and migration as well as provide needed winter habitat to protect them from cold and predators.

What will grow best in your yard/zone and provide a symphony of blooms that will fuel your pollinators? If you are looking for resources, I highly recommend starting the research compiled from Doug Tallamys work that will guide you via zip code to the keystone native plants that host the most insects specific to your geography (1). The Audubon website (2) generates a guide to understand what native plants/trees/shrubs/flowers are recommended for you by zip code, and enables you to understand what species it will attract (birds, butterflies, bees). Bonus, it will give you native plant nurseries near your address to patronize, who are very knowledgeable about what plants will do best based on your soil/water/light requirements (pro tip: don’t buy your plants from box stores- many plants they carry are not native to the area, and some may be treated with neonicotinoids, which are known to harm bees). The 3rd recommendation is plant list specific to your area from the Xerces society (3). It can help tackle light and soil conditions, as well as give you a seasonal bloom calendar to ensure you always have something for your pollinators that is in bloom during the growing season. (Bonus- native plants do not require fertilizing!)

We are all in the same nest. Plant like your future depends on it.

Heather Andrews is a published author, photographer and routinely works with homeowners and businesses to create sustainable native pollinator habitats. During the growing season, you will find her in her pollinator waystation, Cat-a-pillar Haven, documenting her quest to garden thoughtfully via native perennials, and encourage native pollinator waystations to prevent the extinction of the monarch butterfly. To follow her educational videologs, she can be found on Facebook @thoughtfulgardener or on her new educational gardening channel on youtube, GardenThoughtfully. If you’d like to learn more about how to take action in your garden, you can request “5 Weeks To A Fabulous Fall Pollinator & Wildlife Fueling Station” at gardenthoughtfully.com or Private message her on Facebook @thoughtfulgardener to schedule a consultation.


1. https://www.nwf.org/NativePlantFinder

2. https://www.audubon.org/native-plants

3. https://www.xerces.org/publications/plant-lists

Written by

I help gardeners create sustainable gardens to attract wildlife, support pollinators and increase vegetable yield using native plants. gardenthoughtfully.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store