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Celebrate Your Local Pollinators

By Roger Williams Park Zoo, Education Department

Did you know that June 21-27 is National Pollinator Week? It’s time set aside to celebrate the wonderful animals that make possible many of the flowers and fruits we will enjoy this summer.

adult and pupaeMost animals that pollinate plants are small, making them easy to overlook. But they are an important part of our ecosystems and just as critical as elephants, chimpanzees or frogs.  In fact, one of the Roger Williams Park Zoo’s key conservation projects is directed at restoring the population numbers of a local pollinator — the Karner Blue butterfly. Like many endangered species, the Karner Blue butterfly numbers are low due to habitat loss.

As caterpillars, Karner Blues only feed on lupine, a wildflower that grows in dry and sandy habitats like savannas and pine barrens. As humans spread out and begin to control natural disturbances like wildfires and large animal grazing, there are fewer and fewer places for lupine to grow naturally.  Low numbers of lupine flowers results in low numbers of Karner Blue butterflies.

Luckily, the Roger Williams Park Zoo is working to restore wild lupine and help save the Karner Blue butterfly in cooperation with the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game (NHFG).

At the Zoo, it all starts in the greenhouse where the horticulture team grows wild lupine. The Karner Blue caterpillars prefer second year plants, so the team makes sure to keep plants strong from one year to the next.

catepillar_textNext, NHFG delivers eggs and young caterpillars to the Zoo. Here, volunteers help rear the young. Teams monitor the caterpillars, which are about the size of a grain of rice, making sure that each one is accounted for. The caterpillars are fed fresh lupine leaves taken from the plants raised in the greenhouse. The caterpillars will eat and grow at the Zoo for about two weeks.

Meanwhile, Zoo staff and volunteers head up to New Hampshire to plant many of the wild lupine plants that have been started in the greenhouse. This ensures that the butterflies released into the wild will have a place to lay their eggs, bettering the chance for future generations of wild Karner Blues.

Once the caterpillars at the Zoo begin to turn into chrysalises, NHFG has a week to get them back to New Hampshire where they will emerge as adult Karner Blue butterflies. As part of a Zoo summer camp program, local teens help track adult butterflies as they emerge and pay attention to which pairs breed. Later, teens collect eggs laid by the adults. These are the eggs that will overwinter, arriving as the first batch to be reared at the Zoo next spring.

The goal of the Zoo and New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game is to bring the numbers of lupine plants and butterflies up in the wild so that the Karner Blue population can sustain itself. There is lots of work to be done, but with everyone’s hard work and dedication, the outlook is hopeful!

What can you do to help pollinators?
Start paying attention to pollinators that visit your yard. In Rhode Island we have bees, birds, butterflies, moths and beetles that pollinate. What time of year do they come? Which plants do they like?

You can also add native flowering plants to your yard. Choosing old-fashioned/traditional breeds is best. Over time, professional breeding purely for looks has caused some blooms to lose the smell or nectar needed to attract pollinators. Some local plants that flower in June are:

  • Purple coneflower
  • Phlox
  • Violets
  • Wild type roses
  • Aster
  • Milkweed

Without pollinators our world would be completely different. So celebrate them June 21-27 and all summer long!

For more information about animals in their natural habitat, visit Roger William’s Park Zoo located at 1000 Elmwood Avenue. Providence, RI.

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