Butterfly Weekend at Nixon Park: Visitors can learn about, count insects
Deb Carman grew up on a Conewago Township farm. It's where she came to love the environment and all the critters crawling and fluttering in it.
She's now a Penn State Master Gardener and involved with MAEscapes — the Mid-Atlantic Ecological Landscapes Partnership.
She's also involved in Richard M. Nixon County Park's Butterfly weekend. Many people think butterflies are beautiful, she said, but they might not know how to protect them.
Forgo the butterfly bush: Carman said they are imported from Asia, and, while they do attract adult butterflies, they are an ecological dead end. No native butterfly species will lay their eggs on nonnative plants.
Butterflies have host plants: Insects have evolved over thousands of years with local flora. Each species of butterfly and moth has a host plant, which they seek out when it's time to lay eggs. The pawpaw tree is the host plant of Zebra Swallowtail butterflies. Milkweed is the host plant for monarchs.
Moths are more common than butterflies: There are less than 200 species of butterflies in the state. Carman said she's observed about 50 in her yard. But there are thousands of species of moths. Most caterpillars people observe will likely grow into moths. Since there are so many types of moths, some have yet to be studied, Carman added.
Not all butterflies prefer nectar: Butterflies are pollinators, spreading pollen to different plants after their drinking nectar — a sugary substance. But Carman said some butterflies prefer fluid from rotten fruit.
Caterpillars can feed other species: The average lifespan of an adult butterfly is two weeks. Some can live longer. Butterflies can lay hundreds — sometimes up to thousands — of eggs, but very few of those survive to adulthood. Caterpillars play an important part of the ecosystem as a food source for birds, Carman said.
Rethink how you garden: A lot of garden and ornamental plants are nonnative. Local insects won't eat them, so they look nice. But Carman said eaten plants signal a healthy ecosystem. Many people in residential areas focus on manicured lawns and use herbicides and pesticides to keep out so-called pests. But chemicals can throw off the balance of an ecosystem and seep into water supplies. Carman said planting a variety of native vegetation, and letting it grow and decay naturally, can foster a healthier habitat.
Monarchs might be in trouble: Monarchs migrate to Mexico because they can't take the cold months in much of America. Carman said that the past year saw the lowest wintering records for monarchs. That could signal that the population's in decline, she added.
Contact Erin McCracken at 717-771-2051.