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Posts Tagged ‘ecology’

Morning sunlight slants from the South. On my shady front porch, the thermometer reads 67, but it must be over 70 in the sun because the butterflies are out and about. A large brown moth checks out a Rosemary plant, probably attracted to its scent, but finding no blossoms, it moves on to the Swedish Ivy.

Neither Swedish nor Ivy, these plants have spikes of delicate white flowers that curve into the paths of butterflies. I hang them outdoors in summer where they can drink up tropical weather. Sometimes branches of their fragile foliage break off and root in my yard. Here, nurtured by warm rains, they grow into a lovely ground cover. Soon they will succumb to frost unless I pot them and move them indoors. I can’t keep that many, so I will give some away.

Their flowers must be rich in nectar. A yellow Cloudless Sulphur comes by to visit blossom after blossom. One afternoon while I crocheted on the front porch, a Zebra Longwing kept company with the Swedish Ivy. It would flitter to a blossom for a sip then fly off. A few seconds later, I would see a little shadow out of the corner of my eye, the Zebra Longwing back for another drink.

Most everyone loves these flying flowers. Most everyone. In college I had a zoology professor who maintained that the entire order Lepidoptera was harmful to mankind. No redeeming qualities. We asked, what about butterflies?  Destructive. Of no benefit. What about silk worms? Even them. That was a long time ago, when the understanding of ecology was still in its infancy. My professor focused on the destruction of agricultural crops by the larvae of butterflies and moths. To him, beauty had nothing to do with it.

Black Swallowtail and Gulf Fritillary on Bidens alba.

Black Swallowtail and Gulf Fritillary on Bidens alba.

Times have changed. We now are aware that even “bad” bugs have their place in nature and to annihilate them would upset the delicate balance of the world order. And Lepidoptera are no longer bad bugs. Now they are seen as pollinators. With the decline of the honey bee, other pollinators are becoming more valued, a benefit to agriculture and mankind, despite the destruction caterpillars wreak. Other pollinators, such as native bees, are less conspicuous than butterflies, but a healthy butterfly population indicates an environment friendly to bees. When we plant wildflowers to attract butterflies, we nurture other pollinators as well. I wonder what my old professor thinks about Lepidoptera now.

A few years ago, my late summer bean crop was infested with leaf rollers. Once they are done feasting on the foliage, these little caterpillars roll a leaf around them to pupate. But I didn’t let them. Every day I went through my bean patch with a vengeance and squashed every one I could find. Later, I learned I had been killing baby butterflies! Fortunately, I didn’t wipe them all out. The next year they returned to my bean patch and this time I left them alone. Guess what? My beans produced as well that season as they had the year before when I killed all those “pests”.

In the spring, I grew parsley in a container garden on my kitchen deck. One day when I picked some, I noticed the undersides of the leaves were covered with tiny pearls. I had observed Black Swallowtails lighting on the parsley not long before and knew those must be butterfly eggs. Not wanting to eat baby butterflies, I foraged among the parsley to pick only the leaves with no eggs.

Then I was busy for a time, almost too busy to cook. When next I noticed my parsley plants, the leaves were gone and the container garden was crawling with cute little striped caterpillars. They did not look big enough to pupate but they had eaten all the parsley. Hoping to find something else to feed them, I researched their diet. They eat plants in the parsley and carrot families. Alas, I could find none of those currently growing in my yard. All I could do was let nature take her course and hope the little butterflies would find their way. They must have, as my yard is full of Swallowtails.

A neighbor with a butterfly farm tells this story. She helped a little old lady plant a butterfly garden. All went well until the lady called to complain that “worms” were eating her plants. Those worms turned out to be the larvae of the butterflies she wanted to attract to her garden! My friend tried to explain you can’t have butterflies unless you feed them when they are children. All to no avail. It didn’t sink in. The little old lady just wanted to know how to kill those “worms”.

What can I say? If we want to live, we must let live. In The Last Child in the Woods”, Richard Louv writes, “Nature is beautiful, but not always pretty.” How true!

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