Kingsland Wildflowers

On Wednesday June 20th I went out to Greenpoint, Brooklyn to a place called Kingsland Wildflowers.

Salute1This strikingly beautiful rooftop garden was the scene for a Pollinators Week celebration. At the request of NYC Audubon, I was there as a Butterfly expert. Bee mavens and seed folk were also available to talk with visitors.



My photographs  of both local and tropical butterflies were displayed and I placed myself near to chat about butterflies with all who came by.


It is the juxtaposition of the greenery and flowers with the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and industrial buildings that is so astonishing and impressive.

Salute2Don’t those structures look like The Kremlin or steampunk alien ships from a 1930s movie? Actually the structures are called The Newtown Creek Digester Eggs.  From their website we learn that they blend form and function and are an “elegant combination of engineering and art.”

The eggs process as much as 1.5 million gallons of sludge every day.  This sludge is “the organic material removed from sewage. Inside the digesters – given heat, lack of oxygen and time – bacteria break down the sludge into more stable materials. This natural process converts much of the sludge into water, carbon dioxide and methane gas, leaving what is called ‘digested sludge.’  This material is then dewatered to form a ‘cake,’ which, after additional processing, can be used as fertilizer.”


The mission of this magical oasis, Kingsland Wildflowers: “The dream is to utilize existing warehouse infrastructure to cultivate native grasses and wildflowers to support birds and insects in the neighborhood.”

Here’s a short 5 minute video about its mission and origin and the partnerships with NYC Audubon, Newtown Creek Alliance and Broadway Stages.

Grateful to the many dear friends who schlepped all the way out there to share the fun.

KarlSidCynthia at Kremlin

Had a blast, but saw no butterflies. It was cloudy and late in the day. On a sunny afternoon, I’m told that there are butterflies and bees busy pollinating.



Pollination, the mutually beneficial dance

pollinating butterfly1


Pollination is among the reasons a butterfly has an important role in our ecosystem.


In preparation for my stint as “Butterfly Blogger” at the upcoming event, Plants, Pollinators, and People on June 20, 2018, I did some research about pollination.

Just like making new people, plants need a male and female to make a new seed which will grow into a new plant. The difference with plants is that plants have both the male and the female parts in a single flower.


The male part of the flower makes “pollen.” Pollen looks like powder or dust. The female part of the flower (called the pistil) makes the egg. Pollination is the way “pollen” from the male part of a flower gets to the egg in the female part of a flower to form a seed.

pollinProbosis2A pollinator, (a butterfly!) moves pollen from the male part of a flower to the female part of a flower in order to accomplish fertilization.

pollinatorPipevineWingButterflies drink nectar at the base of the flower’s pistil with their proboscis and will move from flower to flower in search of more. When pollinators go in to suck up the nectar, they brush against the anthers and get pollen on their bodies.

When they land on a different flower, the pollen will rub off their body onto the pistil. If the pollen ends up near the opening at the top of the pistil, the pollen will make its way down the pistil to the egg.  When the egg and the pollen meet, a seed is formed. A seed has everything it needs to form a new plant.


As the butterfly finishes drinking and moves on to the next flower, the proboscis coils back into its resting position. Most of the pollen falls off as the proboscis is coiled, leaving only a small percentage of pollen to be transferred to a receptive stigma on another flower.


polllinator BEES flowerButterflies are less efficient than bees at moving pollen between plants.

Many bees have sacs on their hind legs in which to store the pollen and carry it as they fly back to their hive. Honey bees collect pollen and nectar as food for the entire colony, and as they do, they pollinate plants.




This post culled information from these sites:
Kids Growing Strong
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
USDA Forest Service
Nature, TV show blog


I’m a “Butterfly Blogger”!

NYC Audubon has invited me to speak about butterflies at an event celebrating pollinators during National Pollinator Week.  It was my butterfly blog (THIS BLOG!) that prompted them to honor me with an invitation to come as a butterfly maven.

Here’s the post on the Events page of Kingsland Wildflowers, a garden in Greenpoint Brooklyn where the event takes place.
blue lilne

pollinator picLong



NYC Pollinator Week is a time to celebrate pollinators and spread the word about what you can do to protect them!

Come out for a walking tour and cocktail hour on the green roof during NYC Pollinator Week.
Join green thumbs from Growing Chefs in a seed packet-making activity using saved seeds from Eagle Street Rooftop Farm’s wildflower collection, look at photos by Annie Novak from her studies of Monarch migration in Mexico, talk with butterfly blogger Rebecca Reitz, bee experts from The Honeybee Conservancy, and native bee guy Charles Mohr.

Brooklyn Gin will be mixing their version of the ‘Bees Knees’ cocktail using local honey.

Free with registration here.

Spotlight: the tree nymph

Here’s an article by Katie Pavid from the Natural History Museum in London. They have a Butterfly exhibit too.

Reminiscent of stained glass, the tree nymph's white wings are almost translucent


Tree nymphs are also known as paper kites, and they have a touch of magic in their rhythmic flight patterns.

In a distinctive slow flight, the butterflies intersperse traditional fluttering with gliding – an easy exercise due to their comparatively large wings and small bodies.

With black veins in their white wings, the species looks striking against the colourful plants in the Museum’s Sensational Butterflies exhibition.

Paper kites

The butterfly is native to rainforests and coastal areas of Southeast Asia.

Reminiscent of stained glass, its white wings are almost translucent, and the pupae are a bright gold.

A tree nymph resting on a flower

Kerry Calloway, who helps to manage the Sensational Butterflies exhibition, says, ‘Sometimes I see this species and I wonder if they have forgotten how to fly.

‘I will often see them in the butterfly house floating down from the ceiling without moving their wings, like they are gliding.

‘As they approach the floor they will slowly flap their wings once, and go soaring off above the visitors.

‘In the rainforests, the tree nymph will usually fly just below the trees in the forest clearings or pathways. They do this in the butterfly house too, gliding high rather than zipping round visitors’ legs like some of the other species.’

Deadly wings

Their slow flight could make them a target for predators, but in reality that isn’t the case. It actually helps to advertise their toxicity.

The tree nymph is distasteful to birds and other predators. Their bodies contain chemicals obtained as caterpillars, as well as some toxins from adult food sources.

Distinctive markings advertise this, warning birds to stay away.

When the butterflies are feeding, they tend to slowly flutter their wings, and when they rest, they bask with their wings open.

Calloway adds, ‘The three nymphs seems to flutter and glide slowly through their environment to ensure any potential predators have a good chance to recognise their warning colours.’

Bright gold tree nymph chrysalises

A golden sleep

While in the chrysalis, the tree nymph rests in a bright golden pod decorated with black spots.

The pod’s hard, shiny shell helps to protect the developing butterfly from both predators and the environment around them.

It is not known why the shell is so eye-catching, but it may function like camouflage. The metallic colour is hard to pick out against a complicated background.

Calloway says, ‘The chrysalis looks like a drop of water, glinting in the light.

‘Some people argue that the chrysalis is deliberately bright and colourful to advertise to predators that it is poisonous.

‘The tree nymph is very distinctive and it is a joy to see it flying. Some would say its habits are lazy, but it’s certainly eye-catching.’

New York Times Article about Monarchs #1

Meddling with Monarchs
by Margaret Renkl
Contributing Opinion Writer
October 5, 2017

meddling w Monarchs pic
Katherine Lam

Note: Sequel to this article follows.

Nashville — Back in July, as I sat before the butterfly enclosure in my family room, waiting to see if maggots would emerge from a twitching monarch caterpillar clinging to the screen at the top of the cage, two thoughts occurred to me: Is the caterpillar suffering? And is this what obsession looks like?

monarch quoteHere in Middle Tennessee, the monarch migration hit its official midpoint on Oct. 2, but I have not seen a single monarch in my pollinator garden this year. God knows it’s not for lack of trying. In spring I planted two additional varieties of milkweed, the monarch’s host plant, to supplement the milkweed already nestled among coneflowers and liatris and coreopsis and beebalm. The monarchs never arrived.

milkweed-monarchMilkweed is the only plant that a monarch will lay her eggs on and the only plant a monarch caterpillar will eat, so when the milkweed bloomed, I gathered their seeds and replanted, in case the butterflies turned up late this year. They did not turn up late. Deciding to jump-start the whole process, I finally ordered a dozen caterpillars from a teacher-supply catalog and jury-rigged an enclosure over the milkweed bed. It was full dark by the time I finished anchoring the mosquito netting to the ground.

In the morning I found a hole in the net and three caterpillars missing. Over the next two weeks, most of the others disappeared or died. The last two actually got so far as to form a chrysalis, but a storm knocked one of them to the ground before it had fully hardened. The other I brought inside according to recommendations from the monarch groups I’d joined on Facebook. That last chrysalis seemed healthy, but the butterfly couldn’t break free despite painstaking assistance from a pair of tweezers I was wielding on advice from the online chorus. Hours later, when I reported that the half-emerged butterfly had died, my computer erupted with crying-face emojis. I felt like crying myself.

Monarch Caterpillars.jpg

A pollinator garden never goes to waste, and this year I’ve had a bumper crop of gulf fritillaries, swallowtails, clouded sulfurs and one hackberry emperor — as well as a tiny gray hairstreak butterfly, smaller than my pinkie fingernail. The honeybees and wasps and bumblebees have been in heaven here, too, and hummingbirds kept trying to guard the flowers from seed-hunting goldfinches, who cling to the stems and rip the petals apart in a paroxysm that looks exactly like joy. But there has been no sign of monarchs, and I planted this garden for them.

The life cycle of the monarch hinges on the availability of milkweed, but the prevalence of the herbicide Roundup has made milkweed very hard to find: Crops genetically modified to withstand herbicides can be carpet-sprayed, poisoning every wildflower in its wake. Milkweed, which once grew in great stands along the nation’s roadsides and in the margins of farms, essentially disappeared from the American landscape overnight. In 1996, the year before Roundup-resistant soybeans and corn were first planted in the Midwest, the butterflies’ primary migration corridor, there were a billion migrating monarchs in North America. This year there are roughly 109 million, and that number is down 27 percent from just last year.


Painted Lady migration map

The monarch is the only butterfly that migrates thousands of miles the way birds do, wintering in Mexico and traveling — through successive generations in a single season — as far north as Canada before heading south again.

Note: This is not true. A 2012 study revealed that Painted Ladies undertake a 9,000 mile round trip from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle – almost double the length of the famous migrations undertaken by Monarch butterflies in North America.  More info here.

Their travels make them vulnerable to more than just the loss of milkweed. Two other causes of population decline are deforestation in their Mexican wintering grounds and, you guessed it, climate change.

Of all the assaults on the monarch population, climate change may prove the most pernicious. In summer, excessive heat stresses developing caterpillars already vulnerable to diseases and predators. In fall, unseasonable warmth can prevent them from heading south in time to reach their wintering grounds, and 28MEXICO-web1-superJumboextreme weather events like hurricanes can destroy an entire wave of the migration before it reaches Mexico. Worst of all, climate change threatens the monarchs’ wintering grounds, where very specific environmental conditions keep them in a hibernation-like state. In winter, unstable temperatures in Mexico can wake the butterflies too early from hibernation, sending them north before the nectar flowers they feed on have bloomed. And by some estimates, that microclimate high in the mountains of Mexico will all but disappear by 2030.

Not all monarchs in North America migrate. In South Florida, they live and breed year-round, though virtually all of those butterflies are heavily infected with protozoans that weaken the population. Monarchs west of the Rockies travel much shorter distances, overwintering on the California coast, but that population is in even worse shape, down 97 percent from its pre-Roundup norm. A new study this year suggests that it’s on the verge of extinction.

In the wild, less than 10 percent of monarch caterpillars survive to adulthood, even when environmental conditions are ideal. Monarch enthusiasts bring in the eggs they find outside to rear indoors, hoping to improve those odds. When something goes wrong for someone in an online butterfly group, the refrain of consolation is always a reminder of how poorly the monarch fares in nature, of how even one success will help to “raise the migration.”

Image result for MONARCH EGGSSince I had no eggs to collect from my own milkweed, I decided to order another set of caterpillars from a different supplier and try again indoors. I put them in a professionally manufactured butterfly enclosure and fed them milkweed leaves I’d sterilized and rinsed. The monarch stewards in my online groups were having glorious success with this method, releasing hundreds of monarchs they’d collected as eggs earlier in the summer. They kept posting videos of the newly emerged butterflies walking delicately over their hands, and I was going a little mad with jealousy. I typed in my credit-card number one more time.

O.K., two more times. Still, not a single caterpillar survived.

There are many possible causes, both natural and chemical, for my failure. At the top of the list: user error. And my plan was flawed from the beginning, it turns out. Releasing monarchs raised from commercial butterfly farms can create additional risks for the native population, spreading disease, limiting genetic diversity and interrupting scientific efforts to understand the migration.

I haven’t decided whether I’ll go on a quest for wild monarch eggs when these lovely creatures return to Middle Tennessee next spring, but I think it’s time to admit that the pollinator garden I’ve planted here in sterile suburbia is just not big enough to attract a migrating butterfly high in the sky. Still, it’s possible, and if there’s any sight more heart-lifting than a monarch butterfly glowing in the sunshine, I don’t know what it might be. When I finally saw one the other day, it was flying straight down the middle of my street, heading south.


New York Times Article about Monarchs #2

Monarchs in My Garden, at Last
by Margaret Renkl
Contributing Opinion Writer
May 21, 2018

monarchs journey northNASHVILLE — I was pretty proud of myself the spring I planted my first organic garden. It was the mid‑1980s, and I was a first‑year graduate student in creative writing, a program entirely unrelated to horticultural mastery. But I had taken a college course in environmental biology, and I knew the basics: The more chemicals you use in a garden, the more chemicals you’ll need in the garden. It’s a self‑perpetuating cycle, more reliable than the seasons.

At my house, companion planting — marigolds in between the broccoli, tomato vines encircling the spinach — would repel bugs the natural way. Any lingering pests would be dispatched by beneficial insects like ladybugs and praying mantises. One evening I watched happily as cabbage white butterflies flitted over silvery broccoli leaves. Those little white butterflies pausing in the gloaming on the water‑beaded broccoli made for a tableau of bucolic harmony.

Image result for cabbage white butterfly broccoliIt didn’t dawn on me that a) the cabbage white butterflies were carrying out the usual biological imperative of springtime, b) broccoli belongs to the cabbage family, and
c) the butterfly’s name references not only its color but also its host plant. Instead of broccoli, it turns out, I was raising cabbage white butterflies.

In time, I gave up trying to sort the damaging insects from the beneficial ones and started planting enough vegetables for both of us. Nearly three decades later, I gave up raising vegetables altogether. I was always rooting for the butterflies anyway, even before I read about the plight of the pollinators.plyp

Four years ago, I pulled out the vestiges of my vegetable plants and put a pollinator garden in their place. It’s still an organic garden, even though my family isn’t eating what it produces, because chemicals are deadly to pollinators. Now my raised beds are full of native perennials that provide nectar for bees, wasps, skippers and butterflies, or serve as their nurseries: yarrow for painted lady butterflies, dill and parsley for black swallowtails, false indigo for southern dogface butterflies, loads and loads of white clover for the honeybees. The wasps and native bumblebees are gloriously busy in all of them.

Most of all, I planted as many varieties of native milkweed as my garden could hold — common milkweed and butterfly weed and swamp milkweed and purple milkweed — because milkweed is the host plant of the monarch butterfly, and in this age of Roundup‑ready crops, the monarch butterfly is in danger of extinction. In a contest for garden space, the head of broccoli I can buy at the grocery store for $1.99 a pound carries no weight against the mass extinction of an irreplaceable butterfly that can fly for thousands of miles and was once so numerous it filled the skies with gold. This year the monarch’s numbers are 30 percent lower than last year’s, and last year’s numbers were disastrous.

But no matter how many milkweed seedlings I set out from one year to the next, no gravid monarch female ever arrived to lay eggs on them. Last year I tried to jump‑start the whole process with mail‑order caterpillars, but I had no better luck with them than with the mail‑order ladybugs and praying mantises of decades ago, though for different reasons. The praying mantises thrived even if they didn’t save my broccoli plants, and all my mail‑order caterpillars died before they became butterflies. Maybe I hadn’t planted nearly enough milkweed to make a wild monarch take note of my little way station?

“How would you feel about cutting down that sugar maple tree in the side yard?” I said to my husband. “I might need to plant a whole field of milkweed.”

“You want to cut down a 70‑year‑old tree so you can plant a field of weeds?” he said.

Finally, I decided to take the same approach to my pollinator garden I had once adopted for my vegetables: I watered and I weeded, after a fashion, but mostly I let it go its own way. Any number of things might have killed those caterpillars last year. The beneficial tachinid flies that keep the larvae of cabbage white butterflies under control on broccoli plants are deadly to monarch larvae too. The beneficial lacewings that eat the aphids that eat squash and cucumbers are just as voracious for monarch caterpillars. Everything you touch in nature touches everything else. Even when you’re determined to do things right, there’s only so much you can control, and it’s not very much at all.

This year, the perennial milkweed came up right on schedule. I was reading a book on the back deck on Sunday afternoon two weeks ago when a flash of orange in the pollinator garden caught my eye. From a distance it could be mistaken for a monarch.

Of course it wasn’t a monarch. Four years of roundly rejected milkweed had taught me my lesson.

Image result for milkweed plant monarchs

Still, could it be?

I walked over to take a look. And there, lifting herself barely above the green leaves of the milkweed, was a female monarch, pale and tattered, looking as though she had come a great distance. She was fluttering from plant to plant, completely ignoring the nectar‑filled flowers and pausing, just lightly, on one milkweed leaf after another. When I looked closely, I could see she was laying eggs.

Five days later, the eggs hatched. It took a magnifying glass to be sure, but there they were: on each leaf an infinitesimal creature with tiny black‑and‑yellow stripes and tiny black faces and tiny black waving antennae. By the time I found them, they were already eating, leaving behind pinprick‑size holes in the leaves. The milkweed leaves I had planted just for them.

Some of the images in these two NY Times articles have been chosen by this blogger.


To my amazement, I witnessed three butterflies emerging from their chrysalis this morning. In two years as a Vivarium Volunteer I have never seen this magic metamorphosis moment.. but today, I saw it three times!

Was informed that this occurs more often in the mornings. So that makes sense, since my regular gig is in the late afternoon.


crowded vivarium


Early shift on Mother’s Day needed a sub, so I obliged. So crowded with everyone and their mother (and grandma)!