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Butterfly Highway takes off in North Carolina

North Carolina is a prime portion on the monarch butterfly’s route. Planting native perennials like Coreopsis verticillata, also known as Whorled Tickseed, helps support the butterflies on their migration.
North Carolina is a prime portion on the monarch butterfly’s route. Planting native perennials like Coreopsis verticillata, also known as Whorled Tickseed, helps support the butterflies on their migration. NCWF

What happens when you cross a conservation biologist with a geographic information geek?

A butterfly highway, of course.

At least that is the case in North Carolina, where Angel Hjarding turned a doctoral research project into one of the fastest growing wildlife conservation programs in the state.

If you live in the Triangle, you may not have heard about the Butterfly Highway. That’s because the project kicked off in the southwestern corner of the Piedmont (otherwise known as Charlotte), where Hjarding is earning a doctoral degree in geography, with a focus in geographic information science.

“The Butterfly Highway started as part of my research at UNC Charlotte in biodiversity monitoring,” says Hjarding, who grew up near Spartanburg, S.C. “The idea just really caught on.”

Hjarding’s mission started as an attempt to determine how much land remained in the urbanized area around Charlotte to support butterflies and other pollinators and then to encourage residents to fill in the gaps with sustainable perennial pollinator gardens. Her project is now part of the N.C. Wildlife Federation.

The world population of monarch butterflies, as most everyone knows by now, has been dwindling. The only migrating butterfly, the monarch makes its way from North America to Central Mexico and back again each year, and North Carolina is a prime portion of the butterfly’s route.

Throughout this state and others, open land supporting native perennials has been diminished as construction of homes, offices, shopping centers and other urban amenities has flourished. The Butterfly Highway project is aimed at replacing that vanishing real estate through a concerted effort – and individuals and groups of all types are climbing on board.

Hjarding stresses that anyone with a little land and a penchant for gardening can become part of the highway, which at this point covers a wide swath in the Charlotte area but also includes patches in Greensboro, Raleigh and other parts of the state.

“We are seeing more points pop up in Winston-Salem and the Greensboro area,” says Hjarding, who monitors the progress on a map at her website, butterflyhighway.org.

Participation in the project is free. Gardeners just need to pledge to support pollinators by providing a place for the butterflies to rest, have a drink and refuel. It doesn’t take a lot of green space to join the effort, Hjarding says.

“We try to make it friendly for urban areas,” she adds. “Even if you live in an apartment and just have a small container garden, you can be part of the highway.”

Currently, the Butterfly Highway map includes large plots, including a 75-acre school campus, as well as small patio-size locations and a rooftop garden.

Hjarding is working with utility companies to incorporate power line rights of way, city parks and recreation departments, and the state Department of Transportation to encourage native plants along the highways.

“Daylilies are great,” she says, “but it is better to provide something that wildlife needs.”

A total of 250 sites are already registered, even though the public phase of the project is only about a month in the making.

“I think all of the media on the monarchs has brought people’s attention to the plight of butterflies, as well as other pollinators, and a lot of people have been looking for something they can do,” Hjarding says. “It seems to have struck a chord with people in a lot of different ways.”

Of course, what is good for the butterflies is also good for bees, birds and other wildlife.

“We encourage milkweed to help the monarchs, because that’s the only plant they will use to lay their eggs,” Hjarding says. “But adult butterflies need other plants, too – asters, phlox, tick seed and native honeysuckle.”

Trees are also welcome additions.

“Oak trees host more caterpillars than any other plant there is,” Hjarding says. “Most people don’t know that.”

The bottom line is creating awareness “and having conversations with people about the importance of this stuff,” she adds.

Native plant seeds are available through the website, as well as a sign that lets you tell the world you are part of the Butterfly Highway. The signs are sold at cost, about $25, and more than 100 are already in place.

“Our goal is to cover the state, from the far western corners of the mountains to the coast,” Hjarding says.

While there are participants in virtually every area of the state, Mecklenburg County has by far the most highway pit stops.

Now, I say, it’s time for our portion of the Piedmont to show what we can do.

Reach Elder at wildlifechatter@gmail.com

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