It’s been a strange and slightly disturbing summer for monarch butterfly lovers throughout the country. 80% have reported very few eggs being laid in their gardens, while 20% have had a bumper season, with more caterpillars than their food source, swan plants (milk weed), can support. So what’s going on?
That’s the question Jacqui Knight – Blockhouse Bay’s ‘Madam Butterfly’ – wants to get to the bottom of. She’s one of the 80%, while her friend in nearby New Windsor had so many, she was farming caterpillars out to any who could take them. Jacqui says the only monarchs she raised this year came from ‘transplants’ like this. Her concern prompted her to start a Facebook page, ‘Monarch and Milkweed Matchmaking NZ’, which, as the name suggests, links caterpillars with swan plants all over the country.
Butterfly Bay near Whangaroa Harbour in Northland was once the overwintering habitat for thousands of monarchs. In 2005, upon learning of the impending development of an eco-resort in the bay, an entomologist was engaged to research the habitat. Only five monarchs were found in that habitat, raising concern for the monarch population country-wide.
As a result of the exercise the Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust was formed, however the question soon arose about endemic butterflies that were once prolific in the country and are now rarely seen. This prompted the Trust’s purview to be widened to protect and conserve not only monarchs, but butterflies and moths endemic to New Zealand.
New Zealand has at least 20 native species of butterfly, such as red and yellow admirals, coppers and the little blues. Aerial spraying, wasp predation and habitat loss have decimated the population, and many larval food plants are often viewed by home owners as weeds. However, with the efforts of butterfly enthusiasts, through planting and pest-control butterflies are making a come-back in the cities.
In 2014 Jacqui noticed a monarch overwintering site at the Blockhouse Bay Recreational Reserve (Rathlin Street), also noting the presence of several swan plants which appeared to have been planted by a local. She left a note on one of the plants, asking for the ‘gardener’ to contact her, which he did. His name was Dennis Lincoln, and he and Jacqui decided it would be a great idea to make the area into a butterfly habitat to preserve the local monarch population, and with the blessing of the Whau Local Board they began.
The Blockhouse Bay butterfly habitat is a work in progress, and relies heavily on the efforts of a variety of volunteers from the community such as the group of students from Blockhouse Bay’s Auckland International School who show up every Monday for an hour to help with whatever is required. “It’s a great learning experience for any volunteer, especially the younger ones”, Jacqui says. “Most don’t know a leaf from a stem initially, but eventually they become familiar with the different plants and master useful skills such as weeding and planting.”
An ongoing project is to suppress weeds and improve the poor soil by covering with cardboard, and mulch supplied by Council contractors. Planting nectar plants to provide all-year-round nectar for the butterflies is also a priority.
Jacqui is keen to hear from anyone who would like to volunteer at the butterfly habitat. She also welcomes visits from schools as part of their outdoor education curriculum. “With the butterfly habitat problem being so widespread, it’s important that education starts with the very young if our butterflies are to thrive”, she says. “Like bees, butterflies are a very important link in the ecological chain”.
If you are interested in learning more about the habitat, or to volunteer, contact Jacqui Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org, or join the Facebook group Blockhouse Bay Recreation Reserve Butterfly Habitat.