Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A sulphur butterfly

A sulphur butterfly on a black–eyed Susan in the park pollinator garden by the nature center.
© Brenna Decker

June 2015

Peninsula State Park pollinators

A garden is a welcome waystation for monarchs and other butterflies.

Kathleen Harris

At Peninsula State Park, the arrival of mariposas signals the arrival of summer. Like many other pollinators, butterflies time their park visits to the flowering of plants. It may look like butterflies and their insect relatives are just winging it, joyfully flitting between black–eyed Susan and milkweed flowers. But these summer flights are serious business.

The butterflies are searching for life–sustaining sweet nectar, and in so doing, just happen to move sticky pollen from one blossom's male stamen to another blossom's female pistil. (To remember male or female, think "sta–men" and "pistil packing mama").

After fertilization, seeds and fruits form.

Pollinators like orange and black monarchs or butter–colored sulphur butterflies accidently transfer pollen when they visit plants for nectar or for egg–laying and shelter. Many bees, though, purposely collect pollen as a high–protein food. It sticks to their fuzzy bodies, prompting one scientist to call bees "flying VelcroŽ patches."

If you see a smooth–bodied, yellow and black insect on a flower it is probably not a bee, but more likely a wasp. Wasps are also important pollinators. Many have stingers, which are really modified egg–laying apparatuses called ovipositors. In addition to fueling up on protein, wasps hunt for unsuspecting butterflies or spiders. They demobilize prey by injecting toxins, and then feed victims to their own larvae.

This predator–prey relationship became starkly clear one August day at Peninsula's Nature Center when I enlisted the help of several children to release monarch butterflies, newly hatched from chrysalises.

The children proudly marched outside, monarchs clinging to their outstretched index fingers as they walked to the nearby meadow. Ever so gently, the boys and girls transferred butterflies to blooming Joe–pye weed and asters.

Then, zoom–zoom! Wasps jetted in like B–52s, snatching monarchs faster than you can say "anthecology."

I rushed to save as many monarchs as I could, moving them away from the fragrant and colorful battlefield as I broke into song.

"It's the circle of life," I sang off key.

The kids didn't buy my attempt at levity and, frankly, I was just as horrified.

I tried a different tactic. I gathered them around and said quietly, "I sure learned something today. How about you?"

We all expressed some feelings, then shifted to concepts like food chains, diversity and pollination — and also the "good to know" lesson that wasps were both flower pollinators and butterfly eaters. It made a difference it seemed, to be offering this lesson exactly where captive–raised butterflies were in the meadow.

I added, "Did you see how the wasps didn't come after us? We are not wasp food."

Peninsula's pollinator garden is an official Monarch Waystation registered in 2014 with Monarch Watch. The garden is located in the meadow by the nature center and was established in 2007 by an Eagle Scout. It meets Monarch Waystation criteria because the plants provide food and shelter for insect life stages. Common and other milkweeds are included in the garden. Monarch butterflies depend on milkweed, especially for egg laying and larva development. Peninsula staff also tag monarch butterflies in an effort to expand monarch education and research.

Monarchs and many other pollinators are in decline. Peninsula's waystation, like one you might create at home, provides habitat in an increasingly fragmented environment. Peninsula State Park staff and Friends volunteers have worked diligently to remove invasive plants from the meadow too, especially spotted knapweed which negatively impacts common milkweed.

Wind, as anyone with allergies knows, plays a key role in moving pollen on the remaining plants. As far as crops in the United States, researchers estimate that non–native honey bees, native bees and other insects provide a pollination service that is worth nearly $30 billion. What's more, insects aren't the only ones doing the job. Bats pollinate 300 kinds of fruits.

Wisconsin state parks like Peninsula were established to protect and preserve natural resources, including pollinators and the plants they need. Parks also play a fundamental role in teaching people why this matters, what they can do to help, and how they can take what they learned back to their own communities.

Visit Peninsula's pollinator garden this summer — and other state parks — to learn how you can make a difference.

Kathleen Harris is a naturalist at Peninsula State Park.