An audience with monarchs
Akaroa’s butterfly lady’s love affair with magical monarchs.
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.
David and Gay Epstein.