A volunteer organization of residents serving the community in the Northeast section of the Town of Vienna Virginia. See our ABOUT Page to become a member!
By Robin Ballou
After moving to Vienna, VA I started on a small garden venture that has grown tenfold this year. When I started out, planting my first Milkweed plant, I never thought I’d be so successful attracting so many Monarch butterflies to my yard.
We would get to watch them lay their eggs, see them turn into caterpillars, and chow down on the milkweed leaves. I had no idea that harvesting caterpillars to help repopulate the diminishing monarch population was going to be so rewarding, and so frustrating at the same time. I have learned so much through my two seasons helping the Monarchs.
I hope to inspire others to start their own Monarch butterfly gardens, and help Vienna repopulate this threatened insect.
To give you a little bit of background, I have always been an advocate for our animals and our environment. One of my ventures, a few years back, was creating the Colorado Green Action Network. When I wasn’t busy being a speech pathologist or a full time mommy, I was dedicated to improving the health of our community.
The network worked with local, and state representatives to help protect our environment. It also helped to educate the community about coming together to make a safer, healthier environment for us, our children and our animals. Our network saved everything from burrowing owls, to coyotes and helped move prairie dogs by hand when their habitat was threatened.
After moving back to the East Coast, it seems I haven’t lost my interest in this area. Moving to Vienna Virginia was a perfect fit for me with the parks, green spaces and the town’s goal to become a Wildlife Habitat town.
So, when a friend told me about pitching in to help save the Monarchs, it was a no brainer!
In doing some research, I found out we needed to plant milkweed plants. But, they couldn’t just be any milkweed plant. They have found even the slightest amount of pesticides in the plants or the seeds of the milkweed plants will kill the Monarchs (and any other pollinators that land on it!)
One common pesticide used by many homeowners and around schools and buildings, called neonicotinoids, are problematic for many of our pollinators as the poison is systemic. It is spread throughout the whole plant. So when bees, Monarchs and other pollinators come to feed on the plants, they die.
Another problem that may deter butterflies from your garden and your neighbor’s garden is the use of weed killers such as Roundup. Roundup has had a significant impact on the Monarch population as it kills the very thing it needs to survive, the Milkweed!
I do have to say, that I was so nervous and frustrated throughout this process, as many in the town still use companies to spray pesticides and herbicides, and the drift can be so toxic on some days. I’ve also seen many just spray their beautiful flowers with chemicals freely and I don’t think they are aware the poison just doesn’t kill the pests, it kills everything that lands on the plant. It also has adverse effects on our health and the health of our pets.
I started out with ten milkweed plants I bought at the local nursery. We tracked the plants back to their origin and made sure they were pesticide/insecticide free. I planted them in early summer in my front garden. Almost magically, little tiny white, yellow and black caterpillars appeared. Since I wanted to have a better chance of survival rate for these guys, I decided to harvest the caterpillars when they were large enough and bring them in. I snipped the leaves the caterpillars were munching on and placed the caterpillar in a pet container. (Beware, the milkweed plant has latex. I would tend to use gloves when snipping the leaves and buds, and was careful to wash after.) I found the pet containers in the small habitat area at Petco/Petsmart for $10 apiece. They came with a removable top that was perfect for the caterpillars to attach their cocoons to.
I laid paper towels on the bottom of the cages for their well, caterpillar poop, and replaced them with new towels every morning. I placed fresh leaves and milkweed pods in the containers every day and removed the wilted leaves.
Out of my first year’s 13 caterpillars, 11 were released as butterflies.
I loved watching them emerge from their cocoons, and what a great real-life science lesson for the kiddos!
But I have to admit, I was the most excited one. It feels amazing to let the butterflies crawl on your finger, bring them outside and watch them fly away.
This year our milkweed plants took off and we had more than 20 plants! Because of that, we took in over 90 caterpillars. I set free all, but one. What a success!! I have heard in the wild only 10% of the caterpillars actually make it to the butterfly stage. I am not sure how much truth there is to that.
We have recently transplanted some milkweed to the back yard to let it spread there. I can’t wait to see how any plants we will have next year. We continue to be a pesticide free zone and in doing so, we are able to help the Monarchs repopulate! We hope that you join us, as well, in becoming pesticide/herbicide free.
If you would like to learn more about using fewer pesticides and saving the Monarchs, I would love to share my experiences with you.
I hope with each newsletter to provide information to help others in the community add to their wildlife habitat in a way that is safe to all, animals, people and the environment. I look forward to taking you on other adventures, as we continue to add to and enhance our wildlife habitat!
NEVCA is involved in many community programs in Vienna and is always looking for volunteers to help out. Contact us if you have some spare time!