Dispatches from milkweed nation

Dispatches from milkweed nation

President Trump’s going to the wall for a border wall with Mexico, declaring it a national emergency so he can obtain funds outside of Congressional budget approvals. The wall will not only hurt wildlife who will be cut off from their natural habitat corridors and face flooding issues, the construction will also cut the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas in two.
Already Customers and Border Protection and other agencies are driving heavy machinery and trucks through the property, the butterfly center said in a recent a lawsuit. The center houses 200 species of butterflies and native plants and trees on 100-acres. While the battle over the wall continues, there are steps you can take to provide habitat right in your backyard for butterflies, who are important pollinators. Here’s some tips from Benjamin Harper, a children’s book editor whose guest column, “Dispatches from milkweed nation” appeared in FoA’s Winter 2017-2018 Action Line.

By Benjamin Harper

I never expected that raising monarch butterflies would become a second full-time job for me. I’ve always been obsessed with insects, from praying mantises to Madagascar hissing cockroaches and everything in between, and done everything I can to help them (moving them out of the way if they’re in danger, NOT smashing them, lecturing people who are planning to smash them, et cetera) but butterflies never seemed to need too much help.

Then, of course, came the news that monarch butterflies are endangered due to human encroachment on their migratory path, climate change and shrinkage of their hibernation zone in the forests of Mexico.

Other than giving money to various organizations that said they would help, I didn’t know what to do, seeing as for most of my adult life I’ve lived in New York City where yards are generally not available. And when I moved to Los Angeles several years ago, I was on the second floor of a duplex. Again, no yard.

I have a coworker who is a nature photographer and an advocate for wildlife. She has successfully raised more than 2,000 monarch butterflies since I’ve known her—and that number continues to grow on a daily basis. She celebrates her Monarch butterfly milestones in our office. 

When her first was born, she brought in packets of milkweed seeds and passed them out to everyone. When her 2,000th was born, she brought in donuts. I’ve been in awe of her dedication to animals since I first met her, and when I burbled to her a few years ago about how amazing it was that she was doing this, she said, “You can do it too!” I didn’t believe her.

I had a stoop and a stairwell.

Butterflies didn’t want anything to do with that sort of business. And yet on my birthday, she brought me one tiny milkweed plant. “Put this on your stoop and they’ll find you,” she said.

That plant sat there for two years, lonely, sad and desperate. Aphids visited it. A heatwave nearly killed it. But that plant struggled through, and one day when I looked at it I saw tiny black things on some flowers. “More aphids,” I thought dismissively, despairing that butterflies would ever grace my presence.

But upon closer inspection, the tiny creatures revealed themselves to be caterpillars.

I ecstatically looked up what a baby monarch looks like—and dang if there weren’t two of them plopped right on the top of my scrawny little milkweed plant. They had, in fact, found me. I immediately went insane. I monitored them every day.

I bought a special tent to put the milkweed in (“wasps will eat them,” my coworker advised me). I checked on them every five minutes. And then something crazy happened. The two caterpillars I had seen on the plant suddenly turned into SEVEN caterpillars. One milkweed would never be enough.

This was in the winter, so the caterpillars took a really long time to transform—but when my first seven finally formed chrysalises I sat on my porch transfixed, knowing their journey into butterflydom would take a while but still in awe of what was going on.

When I needed to move I looked specifically for a property that had a yard for butterflies. I brought the chrysalises with me, and my first seven butterflies were born right after I settled into my new home.

With the first ones gone, I felt empty and alone. I bought as much milkweed and other butterfly attractant plants as I could possibly cram into my garden, and the butterflies found me again. Since my first batch, I’ve learned so much about them—how to find their eggs and keep them safe in containers until they hatch, the warning signs of sickness (and the various kinds of disease—some of which are very distressing), their biggest threats (wasps), and of course what plants will attract and feed them.(Milkweed, of course, is most important since it’s the only thing the caterpillars will eat and the only place the adults will lay eggs.)

I don’t even know how many butterflies I’ve helped grow to adulthood. My yard is now filled with tents. My garden is mostly milkweed. I spend hours a week scanning each and every leaf for new eggs, and when I find them I promptly collect them and place them in containers. And when the new butterflies emerge, I talk to each and every one of them as I let them go, as if they’ll know what I’m saying.

“You be careful out there,” I say as they flutter off into the future.

 

Benjamin Harper is a children’s book editor and author. He lives in Los Angeles with a cat, a dog and a hippie.