The Butterfly Effect

Author: Emily Courtney

I’ve always thought it was incredibly interesting that a butterfly was chosen to illustrate Edward Lorenz’s theory. As fantastic and enthralling as chaos theory is, I find butterflies fascinating because of a much different phenomenon: that all life on this planet hinges on the work of these creatures that most people rarely give a thought to. Maybe it’s the irony of it, or the inherent humility, but it’s one of my favorite aspects of the grand design of nature.

Pollination, like many other inner workings of nature, is simultaneously intricately complex and startlingly simple. To consider that a flower produces these tiny particles of pollen, that are sticky and will adhere to an insect’s legs, then be carried to another flower, and those particles contain the material necessary to initiate reproduction; it all seems like something that someone could have fabricated out of their imagination for a children’s book.

Butterflies and bees are the chief characters in this drama, but many other insects play similar roles. Some do so intentionally, some ignorantly, but nonetheless, the deed is accomplished in some way, all over the world, within a multitude of different ecosystems. Even hummingbirds and flies can be pollinators. Whoever the carrier, pollinators are the catalyst for the processes that make all other life on earth possible. By pollinating plants, they are ensuring the propagation of food sources for the vast majority of the planet’s population. They are creating a vital link in their ecosystem’s food chain, and all just in their own day’s work.

In Texas, monarch butterflies are the focus of much of the conversation surrounding pollinators and their habitat. Monarchs migrate through Texas from their breeding grounds in northern parts of the continent and their overwintering home in Mexico. In recent years, a significant decline in their population has prompted a response of aggressive conservation efforts from federal and state agencies, as well as private and local organizations. In 2016, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) published a “Texas Monarch and Native Pollinator Conservation Plan”, in which the agency designated, along with the monarch, 30 other native pollinators (including bees, butterflies, and moths) as Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). The plan noted that all of these species of pollinators were dependent upon similar habitat types, which are in decline in Texas. Monarch butterflies rely on milkweeds (Asclepias species) as host plants for egg-laying and larval development. Loss of this one particular type of plant is considered one of the main factors contributing to population decline. Flowering plants that serve as food sources for monarchs, as well as other pollinators, are also disappearing. These habitats are in need of restoration throughout Texas and the rest of the monarch’s flyway.

TPWD’s plan included preserving current habitat, and the perpetuation of further floral resources and larval host plants on public lands. It also called for engaging private landowners to include monarchs and other pollinators as part of their nongame wildlife species section in management plans, and hopefully follow through with implementation of pollinator habitat alongside their other management regimes. Pollinator habitat is a qualifying Wildlife Management Use that will qualify a property for a 1-D-1 Agricultural Tax Valuation.

The plan also outlined an extensive education and outreach program, which seems to be in full swing. There is a wealth of information on the TPWD website: pollinator fact sheets, publications on management recommendations, lists of native pollinator plants and identification guides, as well as resources and organizations with which you can get involved to aid in conservation efforts. If you are serious about becoming a champion for the cause of pollinator conservation, or just think you might be interested in planting a pollinator-friendly garden, tpwd.texas.gov/monarch is a great place to start. There is much more information than I can concisely summarize here, but I will share a few of the general guidelines.

Implementing pollinator habitat is simple and can easily be done in backyard spaces or on multiple acres. Pollinators, like all wildlife, need food, water, and shelter. Cultivating a garden or habitat space with certain conditions can increase the numbers and diversity of pollinators that will visit your space, and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the pollination they carry out.

  1. Provide a wide variety of plant species (flowering plants, herbs, different colors and shapes)

  2. Plan your species so that you will have something blooming throughout the growing season.

  3. Plant in uneven layers or bunches to mimic natural landscapes and achieve more efficient pollen distribution.

  4. Provide water, preferably a running water feature to prevent attracting mosquitoes, with an edge or surface where the pollinators can light.

  5. Provide shelter in the form of downed wood, bee boxes, or clean patches of soil.

  6. Avoid using any insecticides or pesticides around your home, and opt for compost over commercial fertilizer.

Including accommodations for these vital insects around our yards and properties is one of the most beneficial things we can do for wildlife, the environment, and ourselves. It is indeed fascinating to consider the effects these tiny pollinators have on the world. Each species in an ecosystem is connected to and dependent upon every other, and pollinators seem to drive that point home more than any other group or species. There truly seems to be a parallel to Lorenz’s theory, in that the reverberations of what they do can be felt around the globe. Not to mention that, without them, we would be in chaos.

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