On the first butterfly walk I took many years ago, the leader said, If you build it, they will come. As with mouse traps and baseball fields, this has proved to be true at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge on Floridas Atlantic Coast.
In 2004 and 2005, students from Pelican Island Elementary School helped plant the butterfly garden at the refugeand since then the butterflies have come.
Over the years, the garden has attracted an array of them, including white peacock, zebra longwing, monarch, red admiral, checkered white, great southern white, various skippers, eastern black swallowtail, dainty sulphur, cloudless sulphur, phaon crescent, queen, Gulf fritillary, mangrove buckeye and painted lady.
All of which is heartening to me because I guided those gradeschool students almost a decade ago as they put the plants into the groundeach specimen native to our area.
In that time, I have seen up close how fascinating butterflies are.
They will come for the nectar to almost any plant that has blossoms, but if you want them to breed, you also need host plants. Each species of butterfly usually has one particular plant on which it will lay its eggs. That is the plant that the emerging caterpillars will eat and that imparts chemicals to the caterpillar for protection against predators.
How do butterflies find that particular plant? How do they sense and find the nectar? They have ultraviolet vision that allows them to see it. Butterflies can recognize flowers ultraviolet patterns not visible to humans.
And how do they find their way to Florida from colder climes? One thing is clear: Butterflies certainly are tougher than they look.
Sustaining a garden for them takes a fair amount of organization and a great amount of help. In the early years, I most often worked alone. But since the refuge began subscribing a few years ago to Volgistics, an online volunteer management software service, I have been able to send out messages, as needed, to about 900 potential volunteers. I schedule garden workdays according to my free time. A core group of volunteersLarry and Faye Anderson, Hedy Von Achen, Ken Gonyo and John Boltzare as dedicated to the garden as I am.
We concentrate our efforts from fall to spring because Floridas summers are just too hot and buggy to spend time in the garden. Keeping the weeds under control is a major problem; everything goes wild if we turn our backs for very long. And, of course, the wildflowers seed themselves wherever they want, so it is difficult to maintain order in the garden.
In addition to seeing the variety of butterflies, one of the delightful aspects of working in the garden is seeing the birds in the pond next to it. We have an assortment of wading birds: wood storks, roseate spoonbills, white ibis, great blue herons, tricolored herons, little blue herons, great American egrets, snowy egrets, brown pelicans and, in winter, white pelicans and ducks too numerous to mention. Some days it is hard to concentrate on the weeding.
We have a wonderful time talking to visitors from all over the world who come to stroll on the paths through the garden. They are delighted to hear the story of Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge and the butterfly garden. And we are delighted to tell that storybecause when it comes to the garden and its butterflies, my volunteer gardeners and I are like proud parents.
Suzanne Valencia is a volunteer at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida and a member of the refuges Friends group, the Pelican Island Preservation Society.