Butterflies May Be Free But They Need Our Help

By Will Stahl

When I was growing up in northern Illinois, monarch butterflies seemed to be everywhere in the summer, and they were the first butterfly species whose name I learned.

At that time milkweed––necessary for the nourishment of monarch caterpillars––commonly grew in vacant lots and ditches. We kids would succumb to the temptation to see that strange milk-white sap and learn again it was sticky far beyond wiping off on our jeans or rinsing in the creek.

These days you don’t see much of either, monarchs or milkweed, and certainly there is a connection. While some of the problem is in the monarch wintering ground in Mexico, loss of habitat at this end is a contributor.

It has been heartening to see people, on their own, taking up on behalf of the monarchs and the many species of native butterflies and other insects that form an indispensible link near the bottom of the food chain. For the March issue I wrote about Wild Ones and their guru Douglas Tallamy who advocate for native species of plants, which feed the insects that make up the bulk of the diet of many of our birds.

These insects are specialized to eat only a few native plants––some only one––and songbirds are specialized to eat certain insects. Many species we think of as seedeaters need to eat insects during at least part of their lifecycles. Since in most places native plants are scarce or non-existent, so are the insects and the birds that feed on them.

Jack Voight and his wife Marty owned about fifteen acres of land just north of Appleton.

They purchased the land in the early eighties; until then it had been farmland planted in corn. Jack had the idea to develop some of the land and turn the rest into a botanical garden. But a biological survey of the land showed that in the intervening thirty years, it had turned into a functional wetlands prairie with many native plants and at least twenty species of butterflies. Jack changed plans, and the Butterfly Gardens of Wisconsin was born.

Since childhood, Jack has had an interest in butterflies and in the 1959-60 period, he collected and mounted them, a collection he still has to this day. He sold off eight of his fifteen acres and devoted the rest to the needs of butterflies and people’s enjoyment of them.

Jack and Marty’s daughters have grown up with their parents’ love of the natural world. Emily works part time at the Butterfly Gardens, and Carly has worked for several environmental non-profits. She is currently with the Nature Conservancy.

The Butterfly Gardens opened last summer in July after four years of work. To support the gardens, Jack and Marty have created an attractive space that invites visitors and serves as an event venue. This year over a thousand people have already visited, including not only individuals but also groups such as disabled kids from Camp Hope and the elderly from local care centers. Most of the facility is wheelchair accessible.

“Grandparents with grandchildren are among our most frequent guests,” Marty said when I mentioned I might bring my own grandson out.

The event center will accommodate up to 150 guests and is available for weddings and receptions. For an outdoor ceremony, the “wedding arch” behind the building will frame the couple and minister, with a backdrop of blooming prairie land. A number of weddings are scheduled up through this fall and more are booked for next year. In addition to weddings, the gardens have hosted corporate events for companies such as Thrivent and Ace Hardware.

All of it is in service to the mission of allowing a small piece of the natural world to thrive and nurture the creatures that need that kind of environment to live. Deer and turkeys appear at dawn and dusk. Various insects, frogs and toads, birds and especially butterflies are finding a home at the edge of one of Wisconsin’s largest metro areas.

Butterflies need host plants to breed on and nectar plants to feed on. Each butterfly has a particular host plant, though they can take nectar from a variety of flowers and grasses. The Butterfly Gardens has a wide variety of prairie and wet woods plants, each having its own insect dependents. A small pond southeast of the buildings will become a marsh.

The “butterfly house” is a hoop house, enclosing space where guests can get up close and personal with the butterflies. They flutter about and land on shoulders and faces. The plants the butterflies need are either growing in the house or are brought in regularly from the prairie out back.

“Most prairie plants bloom in July and August,” Jack told me. In the large open area left in prairie, he has mown a butterfly-shaped maze into the vegetation. “It changes color every two or three weeks as different plants come into bloom.” A graded berm leads to a bridge with a wheelchair-accessible shelter that provides a view over the maze and the back of the property.

Jack is especially fascinated by the monarch butterfly with its improbably complex life cycle. Monarchs need to lay their eggs on or near milkweed because their harlequin-colored caterpillars must have milkweed to eat. The eggs hatch in about four days into tiny caterpillars or pupa.

The caterpillars eat voraciously for two weeks growing from the size of a pencil point to the size of a little finger. Then, the caterpillar suspends itself from a leaf or branch, curls its body into a “J” shape and within three minutes sheds its skin and encloses itself in a chrysalis, a glossy green package similar in shape to an acorn.

For ten days the chrysalis hangs there, its exterior becoming darker and more transparent while one of Earth’s most miraculous transformations takes place. At the end, the thick crawler has become a delicate flyer, and it emerges within seconds to spread its wings and flutter away.

The adult butterfly does not usually live long, a few weeks at most. But by some long process of evolution, every fourth monarch generation is different. Some embedded primal impulse drives it to fly to the south and west until it reaches wintering grounds in Mexico. It would be an impressive migration for a bird, but this insect navigates its way to a fairly small area a couple of thousand miles away. How they do it has been the subject of much study.

The monarchs overwinter in that Mexican forest, then in late winter begin to work their way north and east. The migrating generation ends its life at about seven months old, having bred in Texas the generation that will return to our northern regions. That generation spends its brief life traveling here, and the cycle repeats.

“Butterflies have been around for thirty million years,” Jack told me. In that vast time, through all the changes in the climate and landscape, the monarchs have evolved this incredibly complicated and fraught lifecycle, vulnerable to development at this end and deforestation at the Mexico end. Vulnerable to the loss of plants they rely on.

Vulnerable to the pesticides meant for the insects that are considered agricultural pests.

Other butterflies and insects have their own needs. Though they may lack the charisma and drama of the monarchs’ migratory life cycle, they are more important links in the food chain sustaining our native birds. In the Wisconsin Butterfly Gardens, Jack and Marty Voight have established a place where birds and butterflies and the plants that feed them are welcome and encouraged. They welcome and encourage your visit.

The Butterfly Gardens of Wisconsin is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 AM to 4:30 PM until early September. It is located about two miles north of Hwy 41 on Hwy 47.

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