Citizen scientists are doing the part to make backyards pollinator rich to save butterflies.
People of a certain age remember backyards with bountiful butterflies. And camping trips resulting in mason jars filled with caterpillars munching on moist leaves, soon to form cocoons and miraculously emerge as marvelous, colorful, winged-creatures.
Today, those miracles happen far less often. Western migration of monarchs specifically has declined 99.4 percent in coastal California, from an estimated 4.5 million in the 1980s to 28,429 as of January 2019, according to international nonprofit Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Garden landscaping and pesticides that “cultivate” nectar-producing flowers and destroy milkweed plants — along with building developments eliminating natural habitats — have radically reduced the food sources and places for butterflies to feed, sleep, and overwinter and for caterpillars to mature.
So when a bright orange monarch swoops through the Oakland backyard of Jesse Snyder, a 28-year-old student at CSU East Bay earning his masters in microbial entomology, he responded during an interview in elated, jubilant tones. “Look, did you see? That’s a real monarch,” he said.
Snyder and a growing number of neighbors nearby and worldwide are engaged in citizen scientist activities aimed at saving butterflies, among other invertebrates. He spends his days researching the devastating impact on monarchs of phryocistis Elektroschirrha, a tongue-twisting protozoan parasite that performs a deadly dance with its host, resulting in black goo instead of a monarch emerging from a chrysalis. During his free time, Snyder oversees a lineup of netted insect cages, including an enormous one the size of a large dog house, and a sprawling backyard with butterfly-enticing vegetation: milkweed, zinnia, lavender, lantana, butterfly bush, passion vines, fruit trees, and more.
“You can engage yourself in gardening, provide nectar flowers, and host species native to your area for butterflies,” he said, about simple ways people can support the cause that has become his mission. “You can leave out dishes of sand soaked in water so they can go between the grains and feed. [Butterflies cannot drink out of bodies of water.] You can vote for politicians who are environmentally conscious.”
Snyder can’t explain why at age 2 during a visit from an entomologist to his preschool classroom he was held spellbound by the sight of a walking stick, cockroach, and tarantula. “I just loved bugs. They’re like little aliens. They’re the bottom of the pyramid, but cool little critters,” he said. He recalled at age 3 looking at bees clamoring on the soft, honey-scented blooms of a butterfly bush and thinking, “It’s like a cathedral of insects, drinking and stumbling around. It’s enchanting.”
What is not enchanting is multi-generational lack of knowledge that contributes to monarchs’ decline. “Adults don’t know butterflies sleep in trees and overhangs; kids don’t play in and learn about nature. Most people don’t know a lot about insects. Like ladybugs — people text me pictures of their larval stage and ask me what it is. They spray pesticides on eggs, caterpillars. Then they ask why they don’t have butterflies.”
Snyder’s neighbor, Loretta San Souci, said longtime interest in the environment and reading about monarch decline and why pollinators are essential to the ecosystem propelled her into action. “I noticed there were less overall butterflies than when I was growing up. Here in Oakland, there’d always been plenty of wildlife. As more people moved in during the 40 years we’ve lived here, homeowners started removing overgrowth. When you do that, you’re improving your property, but not wildlife habitat.”
San Souci, 67, a library teacher in the Hayward school district for over 20 years, gradually transformed the family’s yard. What was once ivy, acacia trees, and blackberries became milkweed, fennel, nectar plants, and flowers. Progress was slow-going; finding the best varieties was at first frustrating. “We didn’t seem to be attracting butterflies or caterpillars,” she said. “The fennel got bigger and bigger, and my husband was complaining it looked like giant weeds. Finally, I said I’d clean it out. I bent forward to start, and I had a face full of caterpillars. They had been there all along; they were just camouflaged.”
On a shelf in San Souci’s dining room, netted cages designed for insects hold fennel, milkweed, water, and caterpillars. After 10 to 14 days in the cocoon, they hatch and are released on a sunny day. “I release them by the flowers with the idea that they will lay their eggs and then we’ll have another batch.”
Energized by the power of fennel in a pot, milkweed in a 4-foot-square sunny plot, or brilliantly pink and orange zinnias to attract and feed insects, San Souci said, “Even a shoebox with netting tied on it and growing passion vines for hatching caterpillars is enough for anyone. Nothing fancy is needed.”
Like Snyder and San Souci, editor/writer Chris Treadway began his participation organically. “We just heard about the importance of milkweed to monarchs,” he said. “We started with a couple of potted plants, and right now, we have 30 cocoons.” Brought indoors from his El Cerrito backyard and placed in jars and old coffee carafes, the caterpillars cocoon, hatch, and are released. Treadway said if it were up to him, he would plant milkweed in all public gardens. “It seems like an obvious thing to do,” he said.
The three citizen scientists point to development as the main culprit endangering butterflies. “We’re building where butterflies are living,” said Snyder. “Wildlife habitat is needed: the marshes, fields, and hills that don’t have names. We’re kicking out 90 percent of the creatures that live there. We’re also going through an amphibian extinction, losing 10,000 a year.”
Even experts like Arthur Shapiro, a lepidopterist at UC Davis, can only surmise that development — paving over where butterflies sleep and the plants they feed on — is the primary cause. Other causes? “There’s no peer-reviewed paper that asks why they’re dying,” said Snyder. “There’s no money in it. Science is driven by money which is driven by politics.”
Asked independently for recommended resources in the East Bay, their voices unify. Pollinator Posse (PollinatorPosse.org) is a community group started in 2013 at Lake Merritt Gardens that provides vital information, resources, workshops, and participatory projects. Annies Annuals, Lakeside Ace Hardware, and East Bay Natives are good sources for plants, flowers, and advice about what will thrive in specific locations and climates. The Xerces Society website (Xerces.org) offers extensive information about invertebrates and conservation. In Alameda, there are a few champions of monarchs, including Ploughshares Nursery (PloughsharesNursery.com) at Alameda Point Collaborative, Alameda Backyard Growers (AlamedaBackyardGrowers.org), and parents and students at Bay Farm School who created a butterfly habitat.
But the most likely place to discover what San Souci said is “a greater awareness of the world around us and trying to make it a better place,” will come in a backyard filled with milkweed, fennel, flowers, butterflies, and butterflies-to-be.