It’s ‘National Learn About Butterflies Day’ and that gives us a great excuse to show off some of the incredible butterflies that live on and visit the Colorado Aromatics farm. Last year, we counted over 17 species of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) on the farm, most of which are native to Colorado. We are positive there are plenty more species just waiting to be discovered - especially moths!
Why care about Lepidoptera?
While all the buzz is about bees when it comes to pollination, non-bee pollinators like flies, beetles, ants, bats, birds, and, yes, butterflies and moths are also important for wild plant and agricultural crop productivity. In fact, what non-bee insect pollinators lack in efficiency, they make up for with persistence, typically visiting flowers more often than bees. According to one study, non-bee insects make up 25-50% of flower visits.
Agricultural products like soursop, custard apple, mango, macadamia, cassava, tobacco, and cotton are all dependent on Lepidoptera pollination. In Texas, fly and butterfly pollination is estimated to contribute approximately 120 million USD to cotton production each year. This speaks to the economic consequences associated with a decline in insect biodiversity. On our farm, Lepidoptera help pollinate several of our herbs including fennel, bee balm, calendula, yarrow, and lavender.
If you need more of a reason to care about these soft-winged creatures than the ecosystem services and economic benefits they provide, perhaps all you need to do is take a moment to watch them. Whether you stumble upon an overwintering cocoon, uncover a peculiar looking caterpillar on a garden leaf, or see an aerial fight between two bright-winged males, the beauty and wonder of butterflies and moths is on display throughout the year.
Butterfly & Moth Conservation
Butterflies and moths play a crucial role in the maintenance of plant diversity, they contribute to our agricultural systems and economy, and they’re beautiful insects with intrinsic value and a right to be respected and protected. So what can we do to show them a little love?
Before knowing how we can best protect them, we need to first understand what’s harming them. There are a wide range of anthropogenic (human-caused) threats to butterflies and moths. These include habitat loss and fragmentation, climate change, pesticides, agricultural intensification, invasive species, and light pollution. While the best way to amend some of these issues is through voting for environmental policies that protect biodiversity and conserve precious ecosystems, there are plenty of things we can do to help butterflies and moths right in our own backyards.
Grow Host and Nectar Plants
One of the best ways we can help Lepidoptera at home is by planting host plants and nectar plants. A host plant is a species of plant that a particular species of butterfly or moth relies on for food as larvae (caterpillars). Nectar plants are species of plants that provide food resources for adult Lepidoptera. Consider planting a variety of plants that are native to your area that serve one or both of these two functions. A garden with plants that range in bloom time can also help ensure that there are food resources for butterflies and moths throughout the year. You don’t need to have a big garden to grow plants for Lepidoptera. In fact, growing flowers in pots or in a window box is a great way to provide resources for pollinators in urban areas where resources are scarce. When maintaining your garden, avoid using toxic pesticides that could accidentally contaminate food resources, causing accidental harm.
Keep it Dark
Another way to help protect butterflies and moths is to turn off outside lights at night. Nighttime light pollution can put Lepidoptera in danger. It can make them more vulnerable to predation, distract them from foraging, and steer them off course. We can improve butterfly and moth survival by turning off unnecessary outside lights and using motion detectors in places where outdoor lights are unavoidable. We can also close our blinds and curtains to reduce the impact of our inside lights.
Butterflies & Moths on the Colorado Aromatics Farm
Growing the herbs we use in our skincare products comes with a lot of perks, including attracting a diversity of beneficial insects. From the yarrow we use in our Yarrow Makeup Remover to the calendula in our Knuckle Balm and Springtide Gold, our farm, ingredients, and products allow us to support a beautiful collection of butterflies and moths.
Our farm is Certified Naturally Grown, a grassroots alternative to USDA organic. This means that we farm with strict standards for environmental protection that make our plants, soil, and water safer for the humans that use our products along with the butterflies and moths that visit our farm. We grow over 30 herbs, vegetables, and trees that provide resources for Lepidoptera all year long. We have conifers like blue spruce, Rocky Mountain juniper, and ponderosa pine and flowering trees like willow, apples, and cottonwoods. We also grow perennial herbs like lavender, fennel, and lemon balm, and annual herbs and vegetables like calendula, cucumbers, and tulsi. This diversity in plants provides resources for safe overwintering, shelter, nectar for adults, and leaves to chomp on for growing caterpillars.
In 2021, our farm became a Monarch Waystation. Monarchs are an iconic butterfly with a very special relationship with milkweed (Asclepias spp.). Milkweed is the host plant of monarchs, and without it, their caterpillars can’t survive. With threats like urban development, intensive agriculture, herbicides, and climate change, monarch populations have suffered severely, making protecting the resources they rely on increasingly important. We grow and protect a large patch of showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) that provides food and shelter for hungry monarch caterpillars. Beyond protecting habitat for the species, we also raised and released around 100 monarch butterflies last summer. We dutifully fed the tiny caterpillars, watching them grow and grow until they hung in their signature “J” shape before forming their chrysalises, and, soon after, broke free, ready to feast on summer blooms, mate, and restart the cycle. It was rewarding work and we hope to raise and release more in the years to come.
Monarchs are only one of the many fluttering beauties on the farm and, while we can’t tell you everything you want to know about every single butterfly and moth we’ve seen on the farm (not today, at least), we want to highlight a few species that are near and dear to our hearts.
Reakirt's Blue (Echinargus isola)
Host Plants: Plants in the pea family (Fabaceae) like foothill clover (Trifolium ciliolatum), white prairie-clover (Dalea candida) intermountain clover (Trifolium andinum), Rocky Mountain clover (Trifolium attenuatum), Cibola milk-vetch (Astragalus albulus), foothill milk-vetch (Astragalus tridactylicus), mountain pea (Lathyrus lanszwertii), and silvery lupine (Lupinus argenteus)
On the Farm: On the Colorado Aromatics farm, Reakirt’s blues can be found nectaring in between rows of lavender and among vetches and clovers. They also enjoy our spearmint plants.
Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
Host Plants: Plants in the carrot family (Apiaceae) like mountain venus parsley (Vesper montanus) and hemlock water-parsnip (Sium suave)
On the Farm: Black swallowtail caterpillars love our fennel!
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)
Host Plants: Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) but it can also be found on false nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica)
On the Farm: We’ve seen red admirals soaking up the sun on stones around the farm.
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)
Host Plants: Thistles (Carduus) and mallows (Malva), although they are known to use a wide variety of host plants
On the Farm: Some of our earliest visitors, we’ve seen painted lady butterflies nectaring on dandelions and flying about the herbs. We grow mallow and have plenty of thistle throughout the farm for their caterpillars to feast upon.
Purplish Copper (Lycaena helloides)
Host Plants: Buckwheats (Polygonaceae) and cinquefoils (Potentilla)
One the Farm: We had a purplish copper visit us in early December of 2021! We’re not sure if they have evaded our observations in the warmer months, or if this was their first visit, but they were certainly a happy surprise to find!
Chickweed Geometer Moth (Haematopis grataria)
Host Plants: Chickweeds (Stellaria) and knotweeds (Polygonum)
On the Farm: Unlike many moth species, these moths fly during the day, making it easy to spot them in the fields as we work. We see them from spring to fall.
Who is your favorite butterfly? What plants do you grow to attract pollinators to your garden? Tell us what you want to know about herbs, butterflies, conservation, and anything else in the comments and be sure to share this post with your bug-loving friends.
Until next time,