Helping pollinators

Gloria Hafemeister
Now Media Group


Fox Lake butterfly enthusiast Gae Bergmann has been a Master Gardener for nine years and has been raising Monarch butterflies nearly all of that time. She has raised more than 500 of those butterflies on her property by providing just the right habitat and protective cages where they can safety hatch without being hurt by predators.

She recently shared her strategies with other Master Gardeners, describing how to create gardens that attract butterflies and then how to take it a step further by encouraging their reproduction.

On her property, she has four varieties of milkweed and a variety of flowers that help to nourish the butterflies. As a result of her efforts, her property has been certified as a Monarch Waystation.

'Monarchs matter because they are important pollinators,' Bergmann said. 'They have been around forever.'

She said they are threatened, however, by severe storms in the area where they congregate, by illegal logging in countries that are unable to prevent it and by the loss of milkweed due to crop herbicides.

Bergmann also explained the lifecycle of a Monarch, noting that as they travel north they mate, lay eggs and die. This happens in several cycles along the way, but only 5 percent of the eggs laid will survive.

'While providing food and shelter for monarchs and other pollinators, creating a habitat they like helps top conserve native plants, reduce habitat fragmentation and increase the biodiversity in the landscape,' she said.

By preserving the monarchs, Bergman said gardeners improve the ecosystems that directly affect the quality of food, water and air.

Getting started

Bergmann listed the annuals, perennials and biennials that gardeners can establish in order to assist the monarchs. These include annuals like snapdragons, cleome, cosmos, lantana, pentas, marigold, verbena and zinnia.

Perennials include yarrow, milkweed, Shasta daisy, coreopsis, purple coneflower, blanket flower, sunflower, liatris, mallow, bee balm, phlox, black-eyed Susan, sedum, goldenrod, violets, New England aster and Joe Pye weed.

Biennials include hollyhock, Sweet William and Black-eyed Susan.

She suggested beginning by evaluating the site, choosing a spot with at least six hours of sunlight. Then, add native plants to an existing garden or replace a patch of lawn.

'To be visually appealing, select native plant species of varied heights that bloom at different times,' Bergmann said. 'These will provide nectar for adult butterflies throughout the season.'

She suggested including native grasses to offer contrast, but more important, to help keep the blooming forbs upright.

'Enhance your garden with at least two types of milkweed for monarchs and additional host species for caterpillars of other butterfly species,' Bergmann said.

Monarch waystation

Because she has provided the habitat monarchs need, Bergmann's property has been registered as a Monarch waystation.

This certification program was developed by Monarch Watch in 2005. Its aim is to develop places that provide resources necessary for monarchs to produce successive generations and sustain their migration.

Bergmann takes it a step further, however, by providing a place where more butterflies can hatch in the protection of a cage. The eggs are pale green, football-shaped and about the size of the tip of a needle.

She searches the leaves in her garden and gathers those that have numerous eggs attached to the bottom side. She then picks those leaves and keeps them moist in the cage (a small plastic container with air holes).

As the caterpillars mature, they go through five stages of eating their own skin. Just before getting ready to go into crystallite, they produce a sticky mass to attach themselves to the cage. After 10-14 days in the crystallite. they begin to produce wings.

Bergmann tags the monarchs that develop in her cages in order to track their movement, but she said in the seven years she has been doing this, she has not had a report of anyone finding one.

Describing the monarchs, Bergmann said a male has two spots on the wing and a female does not have spots.

How to save the monarchs

Bergmann concluded by offering suggestions to those who want to get involved in preserving these important pollinators.

'Collect native milkweed seed and encourage others to grow milkweeds,' she said. 'Join local efforts to protect and restore natural areas and monitor pollinators. Encourage land stewards of parks, preserves and wildlife areas to include more milkweed species in their restorations.

She added that it is important to talk to friends, family and neighbors about the role of pollinators in food production and ecosystem health.

If space is available, plant native trees for butterflies and moths such as oak, cherry, willow and hackberry.

Keep outdoor lighting turned off at night because light pollution may be harmful to some pollinators.