Pollinating insects, including butterflies and moths, are crucial for food production and healthy ecosystems. Residents can do their part to support the insects that support humanity by putting native plants in their gardens and their yards.
“It’s pretty scary, when you think about how many pollinators we’re losing,” said Tracey Waite, advisory board president for Harford County Climate Action.
Waite noted that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is facing a decision in the coming years regarding listing the monarch butterfly as an endangered species. The agency determined in late 2020 that the monarch, known for its orange-and-black markings, is a candidate for being listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The population of the monarchs, which migrate to and from California and Mexico each winter, has been declining over the past 20 years and is “lower than ever,” according to Waite.
“This is scary,” Waite said, stressing that the monarch is “an iconic species.”
People right here in Bel Air can act, though, to protect the monarch and four of its sister species. The monarch, along with the Great Spangled Fritillary, Silvery Checkerspot and Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies plus the Unicorn Caterpillar Moth, are known as “the Bel Air Five.” Harford County Climate Action is working with the Board of Town Commissioners, the town’s Appearance and Beautification and Tree Committees, Harford County Public Library and the Sierra Club’s Greater Baltimore Group on a campaign to save the Bel Air Five.
People can help the campaign – and the pollinators – by getting native plants and placing them in their gardens and yards. Plants that draw pollinators, as well as those that serve as “host plants,” on which they can lay eggs and caterpillars feed, are ideal.
Harford County Climate Action has established a pollinator garden near the disc golf course in Rockfield Park. The garden, which is in its third spring this year, has plants such as milkweed, which is a critical host plant for monarch butterflies. Waite noted that monarch caterpillars “can’t just eat any leaf.”
“We [have] had monarch eggs, and caterpillars crawling all over this stuff,” Waite said of the milkweed. “It was so exciting.”
People can get pollinator-friendly plants at local nurseries, or the annual Bel Air Garden Mart. That event is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Friday, May 19 at the Bel Air Armory, 37 N. Main Street. Harford County’s four garden clubs, as well as Master Gardeners, participate in the Garden Mart, which is sponsored by the Appearance and Beautification Committee. Harford County Climate Action also will participate for the second year, selling plants in support of the Bel Air Five.
The Garden Mart is the primary fundraising event for the garden clubs, with the proceeds going to local charities and to support scholarships.
“They do a lot with their money, and it’s usually all plant related,” said Elaine Millard, coordinator of the Garden Mart.
The Garden Mart is an opportunity for people to ask questions of Master Gardeners about planting. Visitors also can meet with representatives of the Harford Land Trust, which works to protect and preserve tracts of land around the county, and the Bel Air Department of Public Works. Admission to the event is free.
The Appearance and Beautification Committee also maintains a garden at Alice Anne Park filled with native plants, including those that support the Bel Air Five. Members of the committee worked with DPW staff last year to put in “as many of those plants as we could,” such as butterfly weed, a type of milkweed. Another plant, the ten-petal sunflower, supports the Silvery Checkerspot.
“We put something for everyone in there,” Millard said.
The plants, which include perennials that come back each year, are placed around a magnolia tree near the park entrance. Few were blooming as of late April, but two golden ragwort, or golden groundsel, plants were showing yellow flowers during a recent visit. The plants bloom at different times in the spring, summer and fall, according to Millard.
It will take about three years for the plants to mature. They were selected to support pollinators – butterflies, moths and bees – and other beneficial insects such as those that perform pest control. Commission members plan to keep maintaining the garden, as Harford County Climate Action has asked the ABC to support the Bel Air Five project.
“We could fill up Alice Anne as a beautiful native plant garden that does support the Bel Air Five, and others [species],” Millard said.
Additional plants that support the Bel Air Five include wingstem, the common spicebush, sassafras, violets such as the arrow-leaved and common blue violet, and hawthorn trees and New Jersey tea. The latter two support the unicorn caterpillar moth. Waite described the caterpillar as “adorable,” with its single horn.
People also can support the Bel Air Five project by downloading the free iNaturalist smartphone app. Users can take a photo of a plant, insect or other type of wildlife and upload it to the app to determine what the plant or creature is. The app, an initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, is linked with the nonprofit Maryland Biodiversity Project.
Harford County Climate Action can then go to the biodiversity project website and check by county, even quadrant, to see how the Bel Air Five initiative affects local butterflies and moths.
“We can actually zero in on Bel Air and see if our efforts have made a difference,” Waite said.
The population of butterflies, honeybees and other pollinators that are crucial for agriculture has been hurt in the past two decades from factors such as habitat loss, climate change, pesticides and the introduction of crops such as corn and soybeans that are genetically engineered to withstand herbicides. The resulting increase in herbicide spraying has hurt milkweed that grows in corn and soybean fields and provides a place for monarchs to lay their eggs, according to news releases from Harford County Climate Action and the Center for Biological Diversity.
Waite noted that, even if all undeveloped space was preserved, it would not be enough to help pollinator populations recover. Plants that support pollinators also must be placed in developed areas, such as residential yards.
“We have to do that if we want to see wildlife survive,” she said. “There is just not enough space left for the natural world.”
Waite said the Bel Air Five project is “good for Bel Air,” as it could promote tourism.
“If Bel Air embraces this project, we could be known for this,” she said. “I think it would be a lovely thing to be known for.”
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