Butterfly gardeners have all been there: you walk outside in the morning to see what’s new in your butterfly garden and, to your horror, you see that your milkweed is denuded of leaves and yet still full of hungry Monarch caterpillars twisting and turning, trying to pick up the scent of their favorite meal. What do you do?? It was precisely for this reason that Bound by Beauty started our Foster Garden Program, which is designed to prevent butterfly host plants from destruction, and butterfly caterpillars from starvation.
While we believe in personal responsibility in doing everything you can to ensure you have sufficient host plants, it isn’t always possible to predict when the garden will be hit with a wave of caterpillars. Those of us with a flexible schedule can dash to the nearest nursery for more milkweed — assuming they have it — or perhaps to the store to buy organic butternut squash or cucumber (did you know later instar Monarch caterpillars will eat those if you’re in a fix? You can read more about it here.). Sometimes, however, finding food for hungry caterpillars in commercial establishments is impossible, and that is where our Foster Garden Program comes in.
Creating connections between butterfly gardens — and between the gardeners themselves — is a win for nature and a win for humans. Our Foster Garden Program began with a few connections between nearby neighbors and farther away friends, with gardeners reaching out through texts, phone calls, and emails. As our network of gardens began to grow, we knew we had to come up with a better way. Facebook seemed like the best option, so we started Bound by Beauty’s Foster Butterfly Gardeners of South Florida. This has enabled us to create a robust program with lots of gardeners eager to rescue their host plants, and others eager to start butterfly gardens, or to resurrect their colonies of butterflies that had been wiped out by storms, or the misguided spraying of insecticides designed to kill Zika-carrying mosquitoes.
Take the case of the beautiful Atala butterfly, which was thought to be extinct in South Florida until a colony was found in 1979 (you can read more about the Atala’s history here.). Through the dedication of scientists and urban gardeners, this butterfly is definitely making a comeback. However, its habitat continues to be destroyed in the wild, and Hurricane Irma wiped out numerous colonies of Atalas throughout the region in 2017.
Bound by Beauty began working locally in Miami Shores with the Atala in December 2017, raising them in our gardens, sharing them with our neighbors, and educating people along the way about the nectar sources that the adult butterfly prefers. Our Atala Foster Garden Program got a big boost when we joined forces with the Miami Blue chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, which was called upon by botanical gardens and other nurseries to remove the hungry caterpillars from their host plant, the coontie. The caterpillars we picked up were shared almost immediately with eager gardeners in Miami Shores and Miami Springs, and as far away as Oleta River State Park, where there is a very active group of volunteers that works tirelessly to plant native butterfly habitat. As our project grew, the number of Atalas in Miami Shores alone meant that local coontie was under assault in certain areas and needed to be rescued from the ravenous caterpillars. We began sharing caterpillars rescued locally with other gardeners in the Shores, making a lot of great connections along the way.
Since the formal inception of our Foster Garden Program (meaning when we started taking notes) in December 2017, Bound by Beauty has found foster gardens for over 3,500 Atala caterpillars and eggs, as of September 2019, the length and breadth of Miami-Dade County, and even into Broward, West Palm Beach and Charlotte Counties. What a wonderful win-win situation, providing the caterpillars of a beautiful butterfly with new host plants in new habitats, thereby increasing their range and the smiles of happy gardeners along the way. Why don’t you start your own Foster Garden program in your neighborhood or community?