Sunday, April 4, 2010

What Can One Person Do to Conserve Butterflies? by Elane Nuehring

Bartram's Scrub-Hairstreak -- imperiled butterfly of pine rocklands
Photo by Michelle Wisniewski

Members of the North American Butterfly Association and its local chapters, such as our Miami Blue Chapter, are sometimes hesitant to "do conservation work." Some reasons include not being sure they know the issues, not being comfortable with adversarial and political situations, and simply preferring to spend their "butterfly time" on learning about and enjoying butterflies in the wild and at home in the garden. If you see yourself in the foregoing description, then you might be surprised to know that you are already a conservation activist, by simply belonging to environmental organizations such as NABA, the Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy and hosts of others. Your membership and your dues are a vital resource in NABA's conservation work on behalf of butterflies and their habitats.

But, there's more you can do...and it should feel like fun, not stress. For example, NABA chapters, ours included, are involved in a number of partnerships with butterfly researchers and land managers with parks and natural areas. Members contribute time to butterfly surveys and butterfly observation, helping to advance knowledge that can protect butterflies and their habitats. Our Miami Blue Chapter is about to receive training and interesting assignments monitoring Miami Blue butterflies about to be released in a local park, to determine what factors play a part in successful re-establishment of endangered species. This is butterfly watching (yes, structured) in a beautiful place, but it is also a vital contribution to conservation knowledge. This year, our chapter is also doing monthly surveys of three Miami-Dade County pinelands about the presence (or absence) of certain imperiled butterflies of the pinelands -- for purposes of informing land management strategies that can enhance habitat for certain species. If you like to go butterflying in the outdoors, this kind of conservation work could be for you!

If you are someone who can dash off a clear, short letter (or email, although the old fashioned letter is thought to be most effective) if you have the necessary information easily available, consider this mode of conservation work. Letters aimed to influence pro-conservation political or administrative decisions do not have to be, and should not be, long and detailed; a statement of your opinion or preference is what counts and a detailed rationale will largely go unread. If you are willing to write an occasional letter to a legislator or agency administrator, please email us at We will get you on our list of correspondents and occasionally supply you with information sufficient to let you craft a brief letter.

Public education is another vital way to contribute to butterfly conservation. If you are someone who likes to give informal talks to community groups, including youth groups, garden clubs, and the like, our chapter can provide you with existing materials and help you hone one or more programs suitable for the audience or audiences for whom you would like to present. We can accompany you on your first one or two ventures, as your support system. This is a way to meet a lot of people and raise a lot of awareness about butterflies and the threats to their habitats. Since everyone loves butterflies, you are certain to have enthusiastic, curious participants. Let us know if this is a direction that interests you by emailing us at

Then there is the home butterfly garden! By providing butterfly plants, you return a small piece of habitat to butterflies. If you encourage your neighbors, together you may be able to develop what urban horticulturists call "wildlife corridors" -- that is, linked pieces of productive habitat enabling small wildlife, such as butterflies and birds, to move from place to place, yard to yard, block to block, supplied with food and cover.

There are many ways to contribute to butterfly conservation, without being a forceful debater, an environmental litigator, or a political lobbyist. Of course, if you have these skills and/or credentials, and wish to offer them to butterfly conservation work, we want to hear from you NOW! But we want to persuade you that there are other avenues to conservation outcomes, and we invite you to explore these avenues with us.

Share your thoughts on how to help butterflies persist in both our communities and our wild areas and what individuals can do.

Launching A South Florida Butterfly Garden, by Linda Evans & Elane Nuehring

Butterfly gardening can be one of the most rewarding hobbies you could consider! Not only can you grow plants that reward you with beautiful flowers, they will attract butterflies if the right ones are planted. Butterflies need a combination of “larval host plants” (plants on which they lay the eggs and which caterpillars eat) and nectar plants (plants from which adult butterflies get food). Plants and butterflies have co-evolved; hence specific larval host plants support specific caterpillars. Adult butterflies seem to be more eclectic in their nectar plant choices, but size and structure of the butterfly and its proboscis have to fit with the nectar-producing flower.

Two or three decades ago in South Florida, butterfly gardens were rare. We had come to understand the value of native plants and knew that birds would respond to native gardens. Butterflies, however, had not come into sharp focus by most of us. Now, butterfly gardening is big. Libraries have butterfly gardens; schools have butterfly gardens; parks have butterfly gardens. Some of them, such as the Lisa D. Anness Butterfly Garden at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Florida, is very large and offers an abundant menu of caterpillar food plants and nectar plants for butterflies. Definitely worth a visit for anyone considering butterfly gardening in South Florida! These public plantings are great places for us, the home gardeners, to glean ideas for design and to see examples of butterfly plants – how big they grow, whether they require shade, or sun, or tolerate both, and which butterflies can be found using them.

A good butterfly gardening reference book or two will also become well used. In choosing books, try to find ones that relate to your area and horticultural zone—or at least to your state. Remember that not all plants grow in all areas, and moreover, the same plant in one latitude or longitude may be a butterfly-attracting plant, but not so in another latitude or longitude. For some books that are useful to Florida butterfly gardeners, check

Visits to local plant nurseries afford opportunity to both learn about and obtain butterfly plants. While many butterflies can use non-native plants, such as some of the exotic passion vines, when there is choice, they often seem to prefer the native species. For many other reasons, it is beneficial to choose native plants as they are adapted to our wet and dry seasons, our soil conditions and our temperature extremes. Thus, native plants are typically less demanding of water and chemicals and often don’t “run wild” to the degree that many exotic plants do. We encourage the liberal, if not exclusive, use of Florida native plants in butterfly gardens for both caterpillar food and nectar.

For a complete list of butterflies and their South Florida host plants, visit our web site, Click on the tab that says plants. The list is sorted by butterfly and by scientific name of plant.

For starters, here's Linda's nominations for best plants for our area:

Top Gardening Plants
Host plants: Native
Spanish Needles – Bidens alba
Locustberry –Byrsonima lucida
Coontie – Zamia integrifolia
Wild Sensitive Plant – Senna Mexicana var. Chapmanii
Yellowwood - Zanthroxylum flavum
Corkystem Passionvine – Passiflora suberosa
Creeping Charlie – Phyla nodiflora

Nectar Plants: Native
Wild Coffee – Psychotria nervosa
Bahama Strongbark – Bourreria succulenta
Butterfly Sage – Cordia globosa
Firebush – Hamelia patens
Lantana – Lantana depressa, Lantana involucrata
Little Strongbark – Bourreria cassinifolia
Blue Porterweed – Stachytarpheta jamaicensis

Host Plants: Non-Native
Parsley – Petroselinum crispum
Dill – Anethum graveolens
Fennell – Foeniculum volgare
Mexican Milkweed – Asclepias curassavica

Nectar Plants: Non-Native
Moujean tea – Nashia inauguensis
Pentas – Pentas sp.
Butterfly Bush – Buddleja spp.

We would like to hear from you!
  • Do you have a list of your “top 5 or 10” favorite butterfly plants?
  • What are your butterfly gardening experiences? Your successes and your frustrations?
  • Do you have experience with butterfly plants on terraces and balconies and, if so, at what height from the ground?
  • Have you butterfly gardened in very small yards, courtyards, or patios, and what advice would you offer those in similar situations?
  • What butterflies frequent your garden and which plants do they use?
  • Have you found chrysalises in interesting or unusual places?

Butterflies Around Town, by Buck Reilly

Gulf Fritillary Caterpillar & Adult
Photos by Ron Nuehring

Many of us, while idling in traffic, or walking through paved, polluted and overlooked places in our cities, have been surprised to find butterflies (sometimes as many as we find in our gardens). Most butterfly gardeners carefully design their gardens considering the aesthetic qualities of plants as well as their usefulness as host or nectar plants for butterflies. Although it may surprise us, it is clear that butterflies will not turn up their noses (or proboscises) when they find a weed next to a dumpster on either side of the tracks.

Once you begin to look for butterflies you begin to find them in overlooked spaces all around us. Unfortunately the delight we feel at discovering a tiny butterfly refuge in a road median is often replaced with the dismay of its destruction by a lawnmower. Our cities and towns are filled with “leftover” spaces between buildings, roads and parking lots that have little use to humans but which can serve as habitat islands supporting butterflies and other small wildlife such as birds. By converting these leftover spaces to intentionally designed and protected habitats and inviting nature back into our cities, we both increase our enjoyment of our cities and benefit butterflies and other wildlife.

Although many people would prefer a freshly mowed roadside to one that is populated with weeds and wildflowers, they might not protest a less tidy look knowing it is a butterfly garden or wildlife corridor. Local governments may also react favorably to the installation of ground covers, shrubs and trees which are beneficial to butterflies and other wildlife if they realize a cost-benefit. For example, costs associated with irrigation, maintenance, mowing, and fertilizer and pesticide application are reduced or removed from budgets if the plant selections are native.

I have been pleasantly surprised by the receptiveness of our local city government in South Miami Florida to these ideas and would love to hear the experiences and ideas of others. How might we advocate for butterflies in the urban or suburban environment? Chime in -- what's going on in your community that supports butterflies?

Our Mascot, the Miami Blue Butterfly, by Elane Nuehring

Photo by Michelle Wisniewski

Why did we choose the Miami Blue butterfly for our chapter mascot? We wanted a butterfly that would symbolize the fragile, and rapidly disappearing natural areas of Florida. We wanted a butterfly that, while imperiled, still persisted in limited places – and thus might be saved from extinction. We wanted a butterfly that put us in touch with the marine blue of the Caribbean and Gulf Coast waters of its habitat. Thus, we became the Miami Blue Chapter of NABA.

The Miami Blue is a tiny (1 inch wingspan) butterfly with a heavily patterned white and brownish-gray underwing; from a top view, males are bright blue and females are blue with dark wing edges and two orange spots on the rear wing. The Miami Blue is currently known in the wild from only a few off-shore tiny islands between Key West and the Dry Tortugas. One disease outbreak or one storm surge could spell their end.

Miami Blue caterpillars are highly selective and are known to eat the coastal plants Blackbead, Gray Nickerbean, and until recently, Balloon Vine. (Now Balloon Vine is the larval host plant being used by the Silver-banded Hairstreak, but not to our knowledge, by the Miami Blue.) Like many species in the Lycaenidae or “Gossamer-winged” butterfly family, Miami Blue caterpillars associate with certain ant species and benefit from their protection.

Our mascot is thus a denizen of coastal scrub, but no longer of backyards. We receive numerous inquiries about the “little blue butterfly in my yard” and, if it dashes about rather frantically, high then low, to and fro, and might be seen in the vicinity of Blue Plumbago, then you probably have made a home for the Cassius Blue. If it flies languorously and low to the grass, it is likely to be a Ceraunus Blue. Both of these common, and beautiful, butterflies can be seen both in your yard and in wild places.

Coastal land in Florida has been intensively and increasingly developed – and with development has disappeared the Miami Blue’s habitat. Remaining patches of habitat are segregated from one another by miles of concrete, precluding natural distribution of tiny butterflies that can’t fly far. Development has also brought demand for the use of insecticides, including but not limited to mosquito spraying. Exotic ants, such as the various fire ants, compete with the species known to protect the Miami Blue. Parasitoids may be at play. Predators include small reptiles, birds and carnivorous insects and spiders. In the face of these obstacles, our mascot is struggling for its survival, despite numerous conservation efforts, including our own.

At the University of Florida’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity in Gainesville, Miami Blue butterflies have been very successfully captive-bred for re-introduction into the wild. However, re-introduction efforts did not produce populations of Miami Blues in any of their former haunts, such as Everglades National Park or North Key Largo. A new study proposed by Dr. Jaret Daniels, Associate Director of the McGuire Center, will attempt to understand what happens to Miami Blues released into natural areas with suitable habitat. Where do they go? What is their fate? This study will be one of the projects in which our chapter will collaborate by monitoring Miami Blues closely following release.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has set forth a new 2010 Miami Blue Management Plan, with input from several public agencies, parks and refuges, and NABA. In the new plan, there is heavy emphasis on research, protection of existing habitat, and management of habitat for sustainability of the Miami Blue. You can find a link to this document on our web site, on, click the "conservation" button and then the link to "Miami Blue Butterfly."

There is plenty for NABA members to do – we invite you to join us in our work to keep the Miami Blue butterfly from extinction, and we are pleased to respond to your questions. Share your thoughts!

Not So Ancient History, by Becky Smith

Throughout the 20th century, an ever-growing flock of birders and naturalists have peered at brightly colored and/or drab birds--in the sky, on the ground and in the bush. It took a long time to formally recognize that there was something else flying around--also brightly colored and/or drab, in the sky, on the ground and in the bush--butterflies.

Thus, in 1992 the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) formed to promote the conservation and appreciation of butterflies and moths. Birders, botanizers, gardeners, naturalists and scientists joined in swarms. Chapters appeared throughout the U.S., no where more so than in Florida, which has 12 chapters..

Florida and the nation’s southernmost chapter, Miami Blue, came into being in 2000, largely through the efforts of our chapter founder Dr. Bob Kelley. Bob, a distinguished professor and avid birder and naturalist, took an early interest in butterflies; NABA gave him a way to share his interest with others.

The chapter covers sub-tropical Florida--Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. This past winter has been the sub part of the deal, with a seemingly endless cold spell and even a few frosts (Stop laughing, ye who live north of Lake Okeechobee.). Now, our weather is delightful and we have returned to our normal, tropical weather. This climate gives us some butterflies found nowhere else in the U.S., such as the Miami Blue, and some found just north of the border in a places like the Rio Grande Valley, for example, the longwings.

Join us in exploring this southernmost land.