Continuing pollinator conservation all year


By Megan Hammaker

Darke County Parks

The Monarch Butterfly has become an iconic symbol for pollinator conservation. Reports of their declining population since the 1990s continues to spark conservation efforts in many backyards and parks. The generation of monarchs we are seeing now are laying eggs and those will hatch and then make a great journey down to Mexico to overwinter. Many people are aware of the significant voyage the monarchs make, but what do all the other butterflies do during the winter? Do they all migrate? Surprisingly, the answer is no. There are other species that do migrate, such as the Common Buckeye and Painted Lady. They journey south, spending the winter in the warmer southern states. However, there are many butterflies that overwinter here in Ohio!

Many of our swallowtail butterflies will actually spend the winter in Ohio in the pupa stage. They form a chrysalis and hang from the side of a tree or perennial flower stem, exposed to the brutal freezing temperatures of winter. Some moth species, like the Luna Moth, will also spend the winter months in their cocoon, rolled up in leaves, hidden on the ground.

Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies and Isabella Tiger Moths (woolly bears) overwinter as caterpillars. Yeah, you read that right…as a caterpillar! The caterpillars overwinter nearby in the cracks of the bark of large trees. Caterpillars will also tuck themselves into leaf piles for protection from cold. Some of our local skippers do the same. Some species of butterflies, including the Red Admiral, Mourning Cloak, Question Mark, and Eastern Comma, all spend the winter in Ohio in their adult form.

When it comes to pollinator conservation, planting a native wildflower garden is just one piece of the puzzle. What can you do during the fall and winter to help our pollinators? If you’ve ever visited Shawnee Prairie Preserve in the fall or winter months, you’ll notice the dead plant stems still standing in front of the Nature Center. Some may think this looks unsightly, but there is a reason we leave them standing until spring. Butterfly chrysalises may be attached to these stems and other beneficial insects sometimes burrow inside the hollow stems to overwinter. Butterflies that overwinter as adults rely on garden debris and fallen leaves below these plants for cover.

As Americans, we’ve become obsessed with the manicured lawn. A perfectly maintained patch of green grass, usually a nonnative species, with absolutely no “weeds” and no more than an inch and a half tall. These “perfect” lawns have become a status symbol and are a sign to everyone that you have lots of time and money to dump into achieving the “Great American Lawn”. Purdue University states, “with Americans spending about $75 billion a year on lawn care expenses, the impact of certain lawn care practices on pollinators could be more far-reaching than scientists realize.” These vast green patches have little to no benefit for our native pollinators and create large expanses of habitat fragmentation. To achieve this spotless look, it also takes an immense amount of herbicides and pesticides, which pollinators are highly susceptible to. Raking leaves in the fall, bagging them up, and sending them off to the dump is another practice used to achieve the pristine lawn.

The “Great American Lawn” has been around since the 18th century and has become so ingrained in us that many don’t think about how the practices that go into achieving this look, directly impacts our native wildlife. If you’ve already taken the first step in pollinator conservation by planting a native garden, it’s time to think about what’s next. I encourage you to put down the lawn chemicals and let your lawn go a bit longer between mowing. Consider leaving the leaves this fall as well. Fallen leaves, when left alone, not only return nutrients back to the soil but they also provide cover for many of our pollinators through the winter as well. If you MUST rake them up, do not discard them. Instead, pile them on your garden beds or somewhere in your yard that they might be used by pollinators to overwinter.

I stated before that our lawns have become a sort of status symbol, so to some, your “messy” yard will imply that you’re a lazy homeowner. I’ve found a simple way to combat this way of thinking is to put up a simple sign that reads something like “Pollinator Friendly Garden”. You can also use this as a teaching point when speaking to concerned neighbors or visitors. Late fall and winter can definitely be the less attractive time of year for at-home pollinator conservation, but when spring rolls back around you will reap the rewards when a variety of butterflies, bees, and other pollinators visit your yard.

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