The butterfly effect: How the ‘magic of the monarch’ is inspiring conservation in NC

Angel Hjarding’s Butterfly Highway

Angel Hjarding, director of pollinator and wildlife habitat programs for the N.C. Wildlife Federation, is working with schools, neighborhoods and other organizations to build and preserve habitat for butterflies across North Carolina.
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Angel Hjarding, director of pollinator and wildlife habitat programs for the N.C. Wildlife Federation, is working with schools, neighborhoods and other organizations to build and preserve habitat for butterflies across North Carolina.

Growing up on her family’s farm in the Midwest, Phyllis Simon treasured the summers she spent wandering through the cornfields.

Her favorite daily ritual was bringing her father lunch. They’d share a sandwich together under a shady tree and admire the brilliant orange of the monarch butterflies that fluttered around them.

It’s a memory that, decades later, she’d recall when she and her husband relocated to North Carolina.

“When I got back here, I started asking people if they had ever seen monarchs, and I was amazed at the number of people, especially young kids, that hadn’t,” she said, tears coming to her eyes. “And that was really, really sad.”

Monarch butterflies have captivated scientists and amateur enthusiasts for centuries, with their bright coloring and a migratory pattern that’s unique among insects. But over the past two decades, human influences — pesticide use and rapid urbanization — have destroyed vital wildlife habitats and led to drastic declines in the monarch’s numbers.

“It’s the same as if we lost the entire United States population, except people who lived in Ohio and Florida,” said Kim Bailey, an environmental educator with the N.C. Arboretum.

“Ninety percent of the population that would normally be in the overwintering sites in Mexico just was not,” Bailey said.

Once a symbol of rebirth and new beginnings, the monarch butterfly has adopted a new role as an ambassador for the crisis facing pollinators today.

But in Simon’s small community of Hillsborough, she was determined to make a difference. After a breast cancer diagnosis in 2015, an event that put things into perspective, her mission was clear.

“I knew I wanted to leave a legacy,” she said, “and I knew I wanted to do it with monarchs.”

She and her husband have since transformed their plot of land into a certified wildlife habitat and registered monarch waystation — an oasis for native plants and pollinators they call The Butterfly House. Together, they cultivate an abundance of milkweed and flowering plants to support native butterflies, birds and bees, and have reared and released more than 200 monarchs into the wild.

Their small sanctuary has allowed Simon to fulfill her dream of sharing what she calls “the magic of the monarch” with others.

“If you just sit here, and watch them fly, it’s so freeing and just so beautiful the happiness they can bring to people,” she said.

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Bruce Taggart and Phyllis Simon pose for a photo outside their home in Hillsborough, North Carolina, “The Butterfly House.” Over the years, they’ve transformed their property into a certified wildlife habitat, monarch waystation and “pollinator pit stop” on the Butterfly Highway. Alice Hudson

The role of pollinators

Most food systems on Earth, including North Carolina’s $78 billion agricultural economy, rely on the tiny movements of insects and birds from flower to flower. These pollinators collect and distribute pollen that plants need to produce seeds and fruit.

This process, it’s estimated, is responsible for more than 70 percent of global food crops and accounts for one out of every three bites of food we eat.

But rapid urbanization in the Southeast has put increasing pressure on this delicate cycle. In an area that’s already seen explosive growth over the past 60 years, researchers at North Carolina State University and the U.S. Geological Survey have projected no signs of slowing down, expecting urban land area to double or triple in the region by 2060.

Because the Southeast supports some of the most biologically diverse temperate ecosystems, the ecological impacts of this pattern of development are significant. A surge of suburban homes, parking lots and shopping centers will not only eradicate native wildlife habitats, but will leave the ones that remain in pieces.

“This fragmentation inhibits movement, and in the wildlife world, that’s what it’s all about — being able to move for resources, breeding and genetic diversity,” said Gabriela Garrison, a biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

“If you don’t have that movement, then you’re going to start losing wildlife species,” she said.

BASF RTP employees are tagging and releasing monarchs who will join the mass migration of butterflies heading for Mexico.

Judi Sunshine , who manages Wingin’ It Butterfly Farm and Butterfly Farming Supplies in Raleigh, sees these issues already happening outside her window.

“We’re completely ruining our pollinator habitats every day, in a lot of different ways. I used to have a milkweed patch nearby, and now it’s covered by another housing development,” she said.

Even the lush, green spaces scattered throughout suburbia can be detrimental to pollinators, Garrison said, because trimmed lawns offer neither food nor shelter for wildlife, and the pesticides they harbor can contaminate vital water sources.

Because of harsh chemical overspray from neighboring yards, Sunshine said the bees and butterflies that used to frequent her home no longer come.

“I see all these signs for spraying lawns like, ‘Get rid of your pests,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, but do you want to eat?!’”

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Monarch butterflies prepare to leave the nursery at Phyllis Simon’s “Butterfly House.” Over the years, Simon has raised and released over 200 monarchs on her property. Phyllis Simon

Long-term solutions

While the threats to wildlife in the face of urban sprawl are many, scientists agree that the most sustainable, long-term solution is simple.

“It’s all about the habitat; it’s the cornerstone of conservation,” said Tim Gestwicki, CEO of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. “The key is to restore it — here in North Carolina, on the Atlantic Flyway and on the migratory path for the monarch butterflies.”

To answer that call, communities and conservationists across North Carolina are building on grassroots initiatives to help pollinators thrive, if only in their own backyards.

Started in Charlotte, the Wildlife Federation’s Butterfly Highway Project has established a growing network of pollinator habitats that crisscross the state, from backyard gardens to community parks, to support monarchs that fly through the region on their migratory path.

The Highway now encompasses more than 2,000 “pollinator pit stops” — including Phyllis Simon’s house — that support pollinators of all kinds with nectar-rich native plants, such as honeysuckle, aster and phlox.

“People have realized that they can be part of the solution,” Gestwicki said. “They’re seizing the opportunity to help, and it’s all through habitat restoration.”

In Cary, community members have rallied behind pollinator conservation efforts by adopting the National Wildlife Federation’s “Mayors’ Monarch Pledge,” a promise to restore native habitats in the area and educate others about their importance.

Sarah Justice, environmental outreach coordinator for the Town of Cary, said the pledge has had a ripple effect in the community, inspiring citizens to be environmental stewards in other ways, such as composting in their homes.

“They’re beginning to recognize all the different benefits that helping the environment can bring,” she said.

But citizen involvement benefits more than just the natural world, Bailey said. Giving people an opportunity to engage with and observe the intricate connections of our natural world can change the way people think about it, and the part they play in it. By learning to love nature, Bailey said, people are led to protect it.

“When you plant a seed, that is a very hopeful act,” she said. “When you see that flower, and the bees come to it, and then the butterfly lays its egg on it, you’re seeing right in front of your face that what you did matters.”

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At Durham’s Museum of Life and Science, Richard Stickney, “the butterfly keeper” releases newly-hatched butterflies into the museum’s tropical greenhouse. The exhibit offers visitors a unique, interactive opportunity to learn about pollinators from around the globe. Alice Hudson

Measuring change

It may be years before the impact of these habitat restoration projects can be quantified — partly because no unified system exits to measure them, and because, Garrison said, change is slow, especially when commercial development is happening fast.

At The Butterfly House, Simon and her husband have no intention of slowing down.

They’re prepping for the next wave of monarchs to fly through, departing from their winter home in Mexico, where officials recorded the largest eastern monarch population in over a decade this past December.

Though researchers have attributed the surge to favorable weather conditions in recent months — not necessarily conservation efforts — it’s still brought Simon and other enthusiasts a flutter of hope that the “magic” of this species has not yet vanished.

“If you start out as a caterpillar, I mean really an ugly thing, and you turn into one of the most beautiful things, and you can fly and smell the flowers, that kind of gives you a little hope for mankind.”

This is a story from UNC Media Hub, created by students at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism. The students report long-form stories, videos and multimedia news packages covering North Carolina and the world.
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