An au­di­ence with monarchs

Akaroa’s but­ter­fly lady’s love af­fair with mag­i­cal monarchs.

NZ Gardener - - Contents - STORY: BAR­BARA LEA TAYLOR

Akaroa’s but­ter­fly lady

gay Ep­stein grew up in ru­ral Can­ter­bury but spent many years in busi­ness over­seas with her hus­band, David. When the cou­ple re­tired, they chose to be nearer Gay’s fam­ily and bought a vine­yard in Akaroa on Banks Penin­sula. It wasn’t long be­fore the vine­yard pros­pered and their wines won awards – but that isn’t what this story is about.

Rather, it is about Gay’s long love af­fair with but­ter­flies. She had al­ways loved the bird life in Akaroa, and en­joyed see­ing tˉuˉi, bell­birds and fan­tails. But a few years ago she started ask­ing where were the but­ter­flies? Monarch but­ter­flies, in­stantly recog­nis­able by their bright wings of or­ange and black, were nowhere to be seen.

“There had been an in­flux of wasps in the vine­yard,” Gay says of the time. “They drill into the grapes, suck them dry, then lay their eggs in them, and I dis­cov­ered that they will also lay their eggs in but­ter­fly chrysalis. I thought that might be the prob­lem, so I de­cided to pro­tect as many chrysalis as I could by find­ing the cater­pil­lars and tak­ing them into my glasshouse. David was given the job of find­ing them. I took out the veg­eta­bles and filled the space with swan plants.”

When Gay makes her mind up, things hap­pen, and prob­a­bly half the pop­u­la­tion of Akaroa started bring­ing swan plants and cater­pil­lars to her door.

Soon the jade green chrysalis were hang­ing very pret­tily from in­verted bas­kets in her flower-filled glasshouse along with the empty sil­ver chrysalis from which the but­ter­flies had emerged. “It takes about two weeks for a but­ter­fly to emerge from the chrysalis – an in­cred­i­ble mir­a­cle of na­ture and a priv­i­lege to watch,” Gay ex­plains. “Then it will spend sev­eral hours or some­times a whole day dry­ing its wings. The males have thin­ner veins than the fe­males and they also have scent pouches which show as black spots on each hind wing.”

To feed the but­ter­flies, Gay also be­gan grow­ing nec­tar pro­duc­ing plants in the glasshouse and in her gar­den – many of which just hap­pened to be very dec­o­ra­tive too. She favours the bright blue flow­ers of twee­dia (a but­ter­fly favourite), the heav­ily scented pur­ple flow­ers of he­liotrope, hebes, candytuft (iberis), and also grows the swan plants on which adult but­ter­flies lay their eggs and which the cater­pil­lars eat.

“It’s an ab­so­lute de­light to see the growth process!” she says. “When chil­dren from the lo­cal school came to watch, in the space of an hour they got to see a cater­pil­lar turn into a chrysalis, and a but­ter­fly emerge from a chrysalis. How many peo­ple have had that priv­i­lege?”

When a new glasshouse-born but­ter­fly has dried its wings, Gay re­leases it in a gar­den where she knows there are nec­tar-pro­duc­ing plants – ei­ther her own or a friendly lo­cal (and lucky!) gar­dener.

Gay and David have now moved off the prop­erty where her first but­ter­fly glasshouse was sited and into a house on their vine­yard – where David, an ar­chi­tect, has de­signed Gay a big­ger and bet­ter but­ter­fly sanc­tu­ary! It will in­cor­po­rate ex­ist­ing trees and cover ap­prox­i­mately 150 square me­tres, with ad­e­quate space to ac­com­mo­date the but­ter­flies’ full life cy­cle and sup­ply all their needs. It is sched­uled to be com­pleted this win­ter.

A monarch, Gay says, needs two types of food – a large quan­tity of swan plants for the cater­pil­lars which are fe­ro­cious eaters, and then plants rich in nec­tar on which the adult but­ter­fly can feed.

When a new but­ter­fly has dried its wings, Gay re­leases it in a gar­den where there are nec­tar-pro­duc­ing plants. “It’s an ab­so­lute de­light to see the growth process,” she says.

“We take part in a but­ter­fly track and trace pro­gramme,” Gay says. “The Monarch But­ter­fly New Zealand Trust sup­plies tiny tags to at­tach to the wing. These help us know more about where a but­ter­fly was born and when. Monarchs re­turn to the area where they were born, but we haven’t much in­for­ma­tion about where they spend win­ter or how many sites there are.”

But­ter­flies look frag­ile but they can travel huge dis­tances. Monarchs in North Amer­ica fa­mously over­win­ter in the high el­e­va­tion fir forests of Mex­ico. Sci­en­tists es­ti­mate that these forests hosted an in­cred­i­ble 56.6 mil­lion monarchs in the win­ter of 2014 -2015 – and that count is one of the low­est on record. This mi­gra­tion of al­most 5000km for the round trip makes it one of the great­est nat­u­ral his­tory spec­ta­cles on earth. Monarchs re­turn to the same grove of trees – some­times the same tree – as their an­ces­tors did gen­er­a­tions be­fore, but num­bers are de­creas­ing be­cause their breed­ing and feed­ing paths are be­ing lost to agri­cul­ture.

Monarch but­ter­flies are an in­di­ca­tor species and con­sid­ered to be to­day’s equiv­a­lent of ca­naries in the coal mines. In­for­ma­tion from the tag­ging pro­gramme will help sci­en­tists pro­tect them, and at the same time mea­sure changes in the en­vi­ron­ment that also af­fects other in­sects.

Monarch but­ter­fly ( Danaus plex­ip­pus) en­joy­ing the nec­tar of li­lac flow­ers.

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David and Gay Ep­stein.

Twee­dia.

Swan plant.

Bud­dleia.

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