The View From Here

An Evening With Maryland State Ecologist Paula Becker

From left, Laura Van Scoyoc, Donna Shoemaker, Lynell Tobler and Paula Becker
Two officers of Soldiers Delight Conservation, Inc. (SDCI), the Friends Group for Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area (SDNEA) in Owings Mills, Maryland, had the good fortune on February 23, 2023 to attend a wonderful dinner at Irvine Nature Center, also in Owings Mills, followed by an excellent lecture on climate change, habitat loss and other threats facing Maryland's state butterfly and other pollinators. Here's a run-down of the evening and what was learned:

irvinebutterflylecture0302-23-23.jpgLaura Van Scoyoc, president of SDCI, and Lynell Tobler, Vice President, together with ardent Soldiers Delight supporter, Donna Shoemaker, attended the presentation in Irvine's Eat, Drink and Learn lecture series, which this year features all things having to do with endangered species. Not only was the subject close to their hearts, since preventing loss of natural habitat and slowing the extirpation of locally endangered species is what the conservation of SDNEA is all about, but the presenter for the evening was none other than Paula Becker, Outreach Ecologist and Volunteer Coordinator with Maryland's Wildlife and Heritage Service at the Department of Natural Resources. She is the biologist in charge of serpentine restoration at SDNEA. In addition to enjoying a good meal and a fascinating lecture, Laura, Lynell and Donna were eager to support Paula and show her how much her ongoing efforts at SDNEA mean to SDCI. 

The evening began with a custom-blended cocktail of butterfly pea blossom gin, orange juice and other botanicals, followed by scrumptious fajitas, salad, lemon bars and oatmeal cookies. Once everyone had eaten their fill, the 50+ attendees made their way into one of Irvine's conference rooms for the evening's presentation.

Brian Rollfinke, Director of Education at Irvine Nature Center
Brian Rollfinke, Director of Education at Irvine Nature Center, introduced Paula to an enthusiastic audience. Paula's presentation included a frightening, yet enthralling explanation of how pollinators (and all insects) across the planet are threatened by the fragmentation and loss of native habitat caused by excessive mowing of host and nectar plants, pollution of air and water and the use of pesticides, the incursion of invasive species which propagate without natural deterrents to their expansion, light pollution and, perhaps most importantly, climate change.

Paula Becker, Outreach Ecologist and Volunteer Coordinator for the Wildlife and Heritage Service at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources
These threats create such serious imbalance that pollinators simply cannot flourish, and their numbers are drastically diminishing. Do you see as many fireflies in summer or moths flickering around the porch light as you did as a child?

Paula asked her audience to consider, just as one example, that when winter ends earlier and days warm prematurely, flowers and trees begin blooming sooner. But the butterflies and insects that pollinate those flowers have not yet emerged from their overwintering slumber. By the time they do, blossoms and the pollen and nectar they provide, both as nourishment for insects and as a means to propagate the plants themselves, have already faded. This is called a phenological mismatch, and it is becoming more and more common as extreme weather patterns wreak havoc on the natural lifecycle of plants.

irvinebutterflylecture0802-23-23.jpgThis tragic trophic asynchrony of the timing of regularly repeated phases in the life- cycles of interacting species is not the only effect of climate change. As stated by Brooke Jarvis in a 2018 New York Times Magazine article The Insect Apocalypse is Here, "trillions of bugs flitting from flower to flower pollinate some three-quarters of our food crops, a service worth as much as $500 billion every year, and it doesn’t count the 80 percent of wild flowering plants, the foundation blocks of life everywhere, that rely on insects for pollination." Prolonged rainy, cloudy and cool conditions reduce insect egg-laying. Prolonged hot, dry spells reduce insect lifespans and their ability to reproduce robustly.

There are believed to be 5.5 million insects in the planet, a whopping 80 percent of which are thought to not even have been identified yet! It is estimated that there are 300 pounds of insects for every pound of human. Yet, insect numbers are diminishing at an alarming rate. A Plos One research article showed that there has been a 75 percent decline over the past 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. Without pollinators to propagate plants which serve as food for all other animals, life as we know it cannot be sustained. Insects are a crucial element of humanity's ability to survive.

irvinebutterflylecture0902-23-23.jpgIn the United States, scientists found the population of monarch butterflies has fallen by 90 percent over the past 20 years. Half of all farmland birds in Europe have disappeared in just three decades. Researchers assumed that habitat destruction was at fault, but eventually realized that the birds might be starving for lack of insects to eat. By eating and being eaten, insects turn plants into protein that promotes the viability of innumerable species — including freshwater fish and most birds — that rely on insects for food, and that's not counting all the animals that feed on those animals. 

One would think such an ominous subject would lead to an extremely depressing presentation. But Paula's was an exuberant call to action. She outlined steps that every resident can take to promote the survival of pollinators everywhere.

"Speak up!" she said. Speak loudly. Take action. Plant only native plants in your yard. Lobby your big box store to clearly label which plants are native and which are invasive. Turn your perfectly manicured lawn into a wildflower meadow and leave it un-mowed a majority of the time. If your homeowner association objects, vote to change the rules. Don't "clean up" your garden at the end of the growing season. Leave the leaf matter for insects that use it as cover when overwintering.

irvinebutterflylecture1102-23-23.jpgLaura and Lynell were heartened to observe so many attendees taking notes. One participant remarked that pollinators absolutely flocked to her purple butterfly bush, so how could it be harmful to them? Paula's responding analogy was brilliant: Think of the butterfly bush as a Coke machine in a high school, she said. Teenagers flock to it for the sugary sweetness it delivers. But Coke is neither "natural" nor nutritious. Indeed, the nectar of the butterfly bush is sweet. But because it is not native to the U.S., butterfly bush does not provide any of the specific nutrients that our pollinators need to thrive. The gorgeous, orange-flowering plant known as Butterfly weed, on the other hand is native. It provides far greater nutrients for the health of our insect populations. Grow native plants in your yards. Our butterflies, and our futures, may depend on it.   

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