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Staff Stories: How I Stopped Worrying And Started Protecting Invertebrates

By justin wheeler on 10. March 2017
justin wheeler

Butterflies in their chrysalises and bumble bees in their burrows are waiting out winter—unaware of the activities of people as they wait to go about their business. They will mate. They will die. In the process, they will pollinate our foods and flowers. Freshwater mussels will keep our water clean, while spiders and beetles will be busy providing clean-up and pest-control services. If conditions are favorable, they will continue to do so ad infinitum.

Humans, on the other hand, are influenced by more than just the seasons, adapting to the urgent issues of the day, trends, opinions, and shifting political winds. Trying to enact meaningful change at the policy level is often met with setbacks and disappointments. It’s easy to become discouraged, especially when we know endangered invertebrates don’t have time to wait for the political winds to shift in their favor.

When feeling discouraged by the current state of affairs, where can you turn to regain a sense of direction or find ways to make progress?

When searching for signs of hope, I look for it first in my own backyard. In 2010 I inherited a yard and had no idea what to do with it. Having grown up in a Southern California desert my experience with gardening consisted of pulling the occasional weed amongst the stone and sagebrush that otherwise took care of itself. The only invertebrates that interested me were the tarantulas, scorpions, and centipedes that I viewed with a wary eye. Standing in a Pennsylvania garden in late spring, it felt like every plant in the world had sprung up in my 3/4 acre yard, demanding my attention. I watched as creatures I didn’t recognize, and couldn’t name, darted about flowers of whose names I was equally ignorant. Fascinated, and more than a little overwhelmed, I met a local Master Gardener who used words like “host plant” and “chrysalis.” I was gifted a plant (bronze fennel) and instructed: “take this home and stick it in your garden and you’ll attract eastern black swallowtails.” With more than a little skepticism, I took the plant back home and planted it in the yard. In no more than a day or two, the plant had been nearly eaten to the ground by a vivid green and black caterpillar and I was soon on the hunt for more. The same Master Gardener, who has since become a dear friend, generously provided me with dozens more plants—ensuring my new pollinator garden included a diversity of plants blooming throughout the season and supporting each stage of bee and butterfly lifecycles . As I watched the bees and butterflies show up as a result of those garden gifts, I became properly hooked on gardening for pollinators.


The gift of one small plant grew into this pollinator paradise, providing hours of observation and enjoyment.

The gift of one small plant grew into this pollinator paradise, providing hours of observation and enjoyment.


At times like these, it may seem daunting to create change—as daunting as an eastern black swallowtail finding a tiny, lonely, plant in a suburban backyard on which to lay its eggs—but I’ve seen first-hand what education, served with kindness and persistence, can do. I’m reminded of my Master Gardener friend, whose gifts inspired me and allowed me to learn, grow, and share knowledge (and plants) with others in my community. As a result of her kindness, when I run into my neighbors at the grocery store they ask about host plants and tell me about the “cool insects” they’ve encountered. When I put on wings and antennae and tell wide-eyed kids (and their parents) about the 3,600 bees native to North America, and what they need to survive – it’s not long before I start seeing bee balm and purple coneflower popping up where once there was only lawn, and milkweed allowed to stand tall amongst other ornamentals.

My backyard now supports dozens of native bee species, and at least 10 different butterflies. It provides seedlings and divisions that I now share with friends and neighbors. Better yet, it inspires conversation about what a yard should look like, and how a suburban lot can be more than just a place to kick a ball or run a lawnmower on a hot summer day. Best of all it inspired me to join the Xerces Society, where I get to share this story with you.


eastern black swallowtail caterpillar
The pollinator/plant interaction that sparked my love of invertebrates. Eastern black swallowtail on bronze fennel. Photo: Justin Wheeler


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