TOMS RIVER – The neighborhood looks like a typical, middle class one, with mostly manicured lawns that, in mid-July, are blooming with tiger lilies and hostas in yards, hanging baskets filled with a riot of petunias or impatiens – probably purchased from a local big-box chain or grocery store – lining front porches. Shrubbery creates fences and privacy walls, while many properties are otherwise treeless.
The yards typify the post-World War II ideal of success.
And they are killing us.
But then there’s Pamela Almeida’s yard, which like a moth to a flame drew the attention of code enforcement for a while. To the untrained eye, it would appear that Almeida doesn’t own a lawnmower or weed whacker and doesn’t care. Her front yard (and backyard), however, is a haven for insects and birds whose habitats are choked out by non-native plants, invasive species and yard-beautifying poisons. She eventually won over code enforcement and is spreading her conservation message to the public about the importance of pollinators in general and their impact on the environment.
How does she do this? Through monarch butterflies.
Almeida, a Toms River resident for 15 years, has been involved with The Native Plant Society of New Jersey for the last 8 years. She just joined Save Barnegat Bay, where Eagle Scouts are building a butterfly waystation. She’s also worked in animal control, including in Toms River.
“When you bring up bees, or certain pollinators, people are completely turned off. So, learning how to approach people about native plants or pesticides in their yard, the gateway, I found, was butterflies, because everyone loves butterflies,” Almeida said. “They are a threatened species, because of lack of food source, lack of habitat, pesticides, insecticides. Their decline is an indicator for what’s going on in the environment. People are starting to become more aware.”
She created Endangered Wings, a charitable educational program that teaches participants about the butterflies and how pest control and landscaping practices are decimating pollinator populations. She also accepts donations to bring pollinator centers to schools, retirement communities, and garden centers.
“When I bring programs to schools, I ask the kids, ‘What do you find when you go outside?’ And they say mosquitoes and ticks. And that’s heartbreaking, because there is so much beauty out there and it’s becoming less and less, our children are losing that compassion, losing that knowledge, because they’re being conditioned to not enjoy [the outdoors], because of what past generations have done, and what the government is still doing, and that makes a huge impact,” Almeida said.
Some studies have indicated 90 percent of the monarch butterfly population has died over the last 10 years, 80 percent in California last year alone.
She also raises monarch butterflies, an intensive labor of love that consumes hours of her summer days. Her dining area is transformed into a butterfly nursery for part of the year.
“I’ve always been around animals. I was taught very young to have compassion and awareness of things around us,” Almeida said.
Female monarch butterflies in New Jersey spend their adult lives eating milkweed and laying eggs. Those that are born in September and October will migrate to warmer climes in California or Mexico.
Almeida can easily spot monarch eggs, which are smaller than a grain of rice and stuck to milkweed leaves. She gently removes the leaf from its plant and brings it inside, where she keeps the insects in containers in various stages of development – egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, adult.
She spends hours each morning changing and bleaching leaves, moving caterpillars, and checking for diseases.
Monarchs specifically can suffer from Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a fatal protozoan parasite that is spread from infected adults onto eggs or milkweed leaves, then ingested by caterpillars. Almeida raises each egg she finds, but can’t confirm an O.E. infection until the monarch is an adult. O.E. is confirmed or ruled out by pressing the monarch’s abdomen against the sticky side of transparent tape and examining the tape under a microscope to check for O.E. spores.
Almeida will release healthy adults into her yard.
Monarchs found with O.E. have to be euthanized, or they’ll spread the fatal disease to other monarchs.
Return Of The Native
Eight years ago, Almeida simply considered herself an avid gardener. She brought seeds to a swap at Jake’s Branch county park – she was the only one who brought seeds – and was approached about co-leading the local chapter of The Native Plant Society.
“I was terrified because I’m just an avid gardener. I really at the time did not understand or know about native plants or the impact they had. Most of my yard, at that point, was invasive species, thinking I was doing the best thing for pollinators by having all of these flowers. And as my education grew, finding out things like big box stores, their plants are from seeds soaked in systemic (insecticides). So, the whole purpose of what I was doing was actually harming the environment more than helping,” Almeida said. “Maybe let’s think about how native plants will bring back those insects, which are not only necessary for our soil, but our bird population. It goes up the entire food chain.”
For example, she said she recently attended a bird-watching event at Georgian Court University. At one point, dozens upon dozens of species would be seen around campus. They counted 11. That pesticide that keeps pests away also gets ingested by the birds that eat the worms. They all die.
“So I transformed my yard into native species, and the abundance…if you were here [in early July], the abundance of pollinators just on my milkweed is astronomical. It’s a beautiful thing to see birds that are in my yard and different species. Many, many types of insects.”
Insects have specific host plants. Monarchs, for instance, only eat milkweed, only lay their eggs on milkweed. No native insects eat hostas or burning bush, both native to Asia, for example. So people are not only starving native insects and plants, but inviting invasive insects to the area.
Stinkbugs. No native birds eat those, so they reproduce with abandon.
Black-spotted mosquitoes, another invasive species. They attack all day. Native mosquitoes only came out at dusk.
“Even having a small habitat on your property can make a huge impact on the things around you. So when people feel like it’s not just depressing and hopeless, but when they’re empowered and they can make a difference, and there is a way they can make a change, I think that bring a lot of hope,” Almeida said.
According to The Native Plant Society of New Jersey, butterfly host flowers include asters, beardtongue, golden alexander, indigo (blue false), milkweeds, white turtlehead, and violets. A full list of butterfly host plants can be found at npsnj.org/PDFs/articles/Native_Butterfly_Plants_NJNPS_list2.pdf.
Save The Money
Planting native plants not only saves habitats, it saves money. Native plants thrive in native soil and don’t need fertilizer. They hold soil better, thereby preventing erosion.
“How can we fix the land? You’re hurting your economy. You’re hurting your homeowners. Simple changes at a local level can save millions of dollars. Let’s save taxpayer money by not mowing these certain areas and installing native plants instead,” Almeida said. “When it comes to the political standpoint, [politicians] don’t necessarily care about the butterflies, but they do care about their wallet. So when you talk about what we do and how it can save our municipalities and county money, well then people might listen.”
One recent report out of Ohio stated that the state saved more than $2 million on mowing costs by installing native plants – specifically, wildflowers – along state highways.
Almeida’s work can be seen at endangeredwings.com.
How You Can Help
Besides ditching the nonnative plant species and poisons, Almeida says locals can help by volunteering with her, learning how to raise monarchs and release healthy specimens into nature. She’s looking for interns who want hands-on training on how to raise the butterflies from egg to adult.
More information can be found at facebook.com/pg/endangeredwings/jobs/.