Return of the Native - About Us
Apr 18

Bugs in the garden: If you plant It, will they come?

Thanks to Randi V. Wilfert Eckel, owner of Toadshade Wildflower Farm, a New Jersey seed business, for permission to re-publish this article. It first appeared in the current Spring 2020 issue of the state's Skylands Visitor magazine

By Dr. Randi V. Wilfert Eckel

Insects are critical components of any natural area. Gardeners have become increasingly aware that, if we want wildlife in our gardens, we must support all life stages, year 'round. With the fragmented state of our natural areas, wildlife relies on our gardens, yards, fields, hedgerows, and woodlots to survive. When using native plants in a landscape, we are attempting to recreate functioning ecosystems to support the wonderful wildlife that, in fact, needs us to survive.

Insects of all kinds fulfill critical, and under-appreciated, roles in our lives. They are pollinators, herbivores, predators, and parasites. In a balanced ecosystem, there are rarely outbreaks of any particular insect species because, in the humorous words of Victorian mathematician Augustus De Morgan:
"Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum."

Near the very bottom of the food chain, insects are the primary consumers of plant matter on the planet. Leaves, bark, seeds, roots, flowers, rotten wood-they eat it all. Most insects die young because they, in turn, are the primary food source for a great deal of the animals on our planet. Many caterpillars never grow up to be butterflies and moths, but rather are fed upon by birds and fed to their young. Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home (among other wonderful books), has found that a single nest of black-capped chickadees needs 390-570 caterpillars a day to keep the young birds fed. Hummingbirds do not raise their young on nothing but nectar. They need protein, which they get from hunting small, soft-bodied creatures such as aphids, gnats, and spiders.
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Mar 22

Monarchs embarked on the journey north

Spring has officially arrived. My daily walk takes me through a forest clearing deep in snow. As always in that spot, I have a vivid memory of its summer residents, Monarchs enjoying the milkweed, drifting from plant to plant, the females laying eggs that would turn into boldly striped caterpillars.

Those that emerged here last fall and made it to the Mexico wintering grounds are among the ones that are now returning. Journey North is reporting sightings in a band across the continent - Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida. Over a couple of generations, some of their progeny will make it back to the Simcoe forest tract where the Common Milkweed flourishes in the sandy soil.

They’re on their way.

March is the month Monarch butterflies start moving north from their wintering grounds in the high mountains of Mexico. And the colony at Cerro Pelón Butterfly Reserve is on the move, Ellen Sharp advised last week. She and her husband Joel Moreno own the JM Butterfly B&B at the edge of the reserve, where I stayed in December. In mid-February, the weather warmed, a “massive amount of mating” was observed, and the remigration north appeared to begin, early. 

All is not well.

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Dec 13

On the Monarch migration trail: It's such a long way

I’m at 10,000 feet in the pine and fir forest of the higher levels of the Sierra Madre mountains in central Mexico. I stand on an uneven narrow path going up Cerro Pelón, watching thousands of brilliant Monarch butterflies dance through the trees above me. A few flutter to the ground, to bask in a patch of sunshine. 

I’m a bit deaf, but my friend Ellen who is my companion on this journey (we first met volunteering at Tiny Marsh) tells me the movement of their wings sounds like the rustling of leaves. With my binoculars, I pick out the colonies - the pale undersides of the wings of massive clusters of butterflies gathered on the branches of the Oyamel Firs, the only trees on which the Monarchs will roost. 

Some, I think, have made their way here from my home 4,250 kilometres away, in Ontario. 

Two months ago, one of them may have passed through my garden, pausing to nectar at the asters, phloxes and Joe Pye weeds. One might even have been one of those caterpillars I raised that consumed impressive amounts of milkweed, to finally eclose from a green jewel-like chrysalid and sail off in a southerly direction.Read more

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