We’ve 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??
Those of us with a flexible schedule can dash to the nearest nursery for more milkweed, 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 them is impossible, and that is where our Foster Garden project comes in. Bound by Beauty’s Foster Garden project is designed to protect both butterfly caterpillars, and their host plants by creating connections between local butterfly gardeners and corridors in between their gardens.
While we believe in personal responsibility in doing everything you can to ensure you have sufficient host plants, you can’t always predict when you’ll be hit with a wave of caterpillars. Indeed, the hallmark of a successful butterfly garden is the consumption of host plants. The more you grow, the more they come, and the more likely you are to run out. That’s how it is in South Florida anyway. And people with small gardens don’t always have the space to allow existing plants to resprout, while allowing caterpillars to keep on munching. Take Maria, for instance: she lives in a condo with a tiny garden that she has turned over to butterflies. We met by chance when she happened to be visiting a relative who lives down the block, and she saw me outside in my butterfly garden. When she explained her difficulty in keeping enough host plants for hungry caterpillars, we made a deal: she would bring me her denuded plants and exchange them for ones with leaves. Since I have room in my garden, I could allow her plants to regrow while still providing food for caterpillars elsewhere in the garden. And, since my goal was increasing the numbers of Monarchs and other butterflies in my community, this exchange of host plants would help me reach that goal, while giving her access to a more-or-less steady stream of milkweed.
This exchange with Maria, and with a few other gardeners, has turned into 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 Hurricane Irma, or the misguided spraying of pesticides 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 last fall’s Hurricane Irma wiped out numerous colonies of Atalas throughout the region.
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 project 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 coontie. The 100 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 Atala 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 project (meaning when we started taking notes) in December 2017, Bound by Beauty has rescued 1,286 Atala caterpillars, and found foster gardens for 1,488, from as far north as Dania, as far south as Kendall, to the shores of Biscayne Bay in the magnificent gardens at Vizcaya. 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.