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Conservation In Mind – Butterflies & and their host plants

By Frances Lamberts

A Gulf Fritillary caught my eye in the second November week, and this summer the Passionflower vine had nurtured many of two fritillaries’ caterpillars it hosts, until the first frost blighted the leaves. The trellised vine of the Dutchman’s Pipe, resident of the Appalachian mountains for millions of years, had raised dozens of caterpillars of another of our butterflies, the Pipevine Swallowtail.

For yet another – the Monarch – butterfly, whose serious population declines in recent years had almost landed it on the federal endangered-species list, 2019 also seems to have been a good year. Three Common Milkweed colonies on the property harbored an overabundance of its green, and black-yellow-white banded caterpillars. It was late in the season, though, and the dry summer had sapped the plants’ vigor, wilting and browning many leaves. More than a hundred caterpillars thus went to a friend – Jonesborough’s Virginia Kennedy – who raises Monarchs from eggs through pupation and emergence and tags the adults’ wings, part of the Monarch Watch organization’s monitoring for this butterfly.

Exceptionally many Monarchs were seen heading to their wintering grounds in Mexico this fall, along several of its migration routes. Especially along the eastern route following the Appalachian mountain ridges, observers reported “spectacular” sightings.

As for the tall milkweed plant, the “common” species designation in its name is a misnomer of sorts. As biologist Craig Holdrege of the Nature Center reports, there is nothing “common” about it, excepting perhaps its abundance in fields in earlier days. A remarkable plant, it has a highly refined and complex flower structure, the flower globe containing up to 200 pink-colored, individual flowers. It keeps blooming for a long time and with copious, sweet and fragrant nectar, the many individual flowers attract a multitude of insects, from honey bees to various native bees, ants and spiders, flies and dozens of species of beetles, to a variety of butterflies. All of them, since they move among many other flowers, provide a mainstay of critical pollination services.

The efforts stemming from the previous administration’s task force on pollinators – its “Monarch Highway” and other pollinator-habitat projects – may be a factor in the Monarch’s seeming recovery. For bees, butterflies and other insects, and the plants they depend on, we can only hope that the Trump administration’s approval of highly dangerous, new neonicotinoid pesticides will not reverse the apparent progress or bring other, deleterious impacts for the environment and human health.