Backyard birder: Plant it and they will come

Backyard Birder
Thursday, August 09, 2018 10:30AM

It’s hard not to write about pollinators these midsummer days, especially monarch butterflies, but first some pollinator news of another sort. Thanks to the efforts of Kin Schilling and Melissa Stephenson and over 100donors, a honey bee mural is in progress at the Peterborough Community Center. It’s part of an effort bigger than Peterborough, global in fact, although it’s the work and vision of just one person.The Ledger-Transcript will give it good coverage soon, but it’s a shame to miss muralist Matt Willey in action in the meantime, and the progress of the wall mural, one honey bee at a time.

As an irresistible teaser, watch a 10-minute video of Matt and his mission at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxuSeRinJoE. (Or search “matt willey good of thehive youtube.”) And then mark your calendar for a lively concert August 18, 7 p.m. at the site — good family fun.

Peterborough is lucky to be part of Matt’s work. Outreach about what Matt calls “The Good of the Hive” is a key part of his work. Watch the video and you’ll see what he’s up to.

Meanwhile, it’s a strong year for monarch butterflies in the Northeast and I hope well beyond, one that brings back memories of years past.

I do a backyard survey each fall when the “super-generation” of monarchs heads south in surely the most remarkable migration of all, some 2,000 miles to winter in an expanse of fir forest in Mexico.

Our yard is pollinator friendly. For the survey I count the most monarchs seen at any one time. There were 21 in 1997, but since then numbers have fallen way off, a decline of 80 percent overall. Typical entry for 2012 and 2013: “a rare monarch.”

Last year saw a hopeful rebound and this year looks to be the same or better.

Evidently warm weather in Texas in April spurred development of both the larvae (caterpillar) and pupae stages. That first generation heading north, hatched from eggs laid on Texas milkweed, was a big one.

As one monarch story, we were in Maine last week where our family shares a house built by my grandparents. Aug. 1 begins our designated month.

Last August we planted milkweed in my grandparents’ large garden. Instead of tea roses, peonies and delphinium of their era, we plant beans, raspberries, tomatoes and some hardy perennials. And milkweed.

Last August, I noticed a few monarchs but no milkweed in the area for them to lay their eggs on. Roadsides and old fields were surprisingly milkweed-free.

I’m used to milkweed colonizing our Peterborough yard and gardens, and have had trouble understanding that milkweed in many regions is a limiting factor for monarchs.

There’s a nationwide effort to plant more milkweed from seed-sharing to outfits that sell milkweed “plugs,” flats of small starter plants.

A year ago we bought six small common milkweed clumps at Surry Gardens, near Ellsworth, Maine, an impressive greenhouse, and planted them in Granny’s garden.I alerted that other families about the milkweed — that it’s not a weed! Everyone loves monarchs and gets it: no milkweed means no monarchs.

The planting worked; the milkweed is thriving, and with it monarchs. Exploring the milkweed we found several small caterpillars. The next logical step for this year: planting nectar sources for the monarchs to feed on.

A couple more trips to Surrey Gardens and its 30 percent sale on perennials. In their bounty of perennials, we watched. One bright magenta echinacea (coneflower) was abuzz with bumble bees. That made the choice easy.

We took back some butterfly weed, too, an orange member of the milkweed family that adds pleasing color to the garden as well as being a pollinator magnet. Two of the plants hosted monarch caterpillars.

On the last day of our visit, eight monarchs were dancing in the garden, their attention centered on milkweed and the coneflowers: laying eggs on the milkweed and nectaring on the coneflowers. I counted three monarchs sharing one coneflower with several bumble bees and a few honey bees. Granddaughter Hayden was with me when a monarch came near. She was close enough to touch, but she ignored us, intent on laying eggs. We saw her ovipositor bend to one leaf, and then on to another. We turned each leaf up to see the tiny pearl eggs he deposited.

If you see a monarch flit from leaf to leaf, she’s laying eggs. My sister lives nearby and observed our milkweeds and monarchs with interest, so we dropped off three pots of common milkweed and two butterfly weed for her, buying some more coneflower, too, for our Peterborough gardens.

If you come across purple emperor coneflower, bring some home.

Plant it and they will come.