Miami Blue the NABA Chapter Mascot
Photo by David L Lysinger
Why have butterfly populations declined, and in some unfortunate cases, disappeared in South Florida?
Marc Minno, Ph.D., provides an overview in the Fall 2010 issue of American Butterflies . Read his piece.
The Miami Blue Officially, Federally Listed as Endangered
Mickey Wheeler captured this adult Miami Blue and a caterpillar with an attentive ant on Bahia Honda State Park, prior to the Miami Blue's disappearance from that long-standing location.
As of April 6, 2012, our mascot butterfly, the Miami Blue, has been granted full protection under the Endangered Species Act. This measure by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides a management plan and oversight for the butterfly, which now occurs, to our knowledge, only within National Wildlife Refuge boundaries in the Florida Keys, no longer within reach of landlubbers. While endangered species listing has both advantages and disadvantages in the conservation of a fragile species, the strongest reason to support listing the Miami Blue is national and state-wide attention to our declining biodiversity and to all of Florida's imperiled butterflies.
Citizen Science: Another Form of Conservation Action
Another way to be involved in conservation action is our Florida Natural Areas Inventory (FNAI) Survey of Imperiled South Florida Butterfly Species. This is our biggest in-the-field citizen science endeavor in the protected pinelands, hammocks and wetlands of Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties -- as well as parks and gardens -- in search of two dozen species of concern. Our volunteer efforts and field skills make this three-year state funded effort possible.
Implementing a protocol designed by Dean Jue, Special Projects Director, FNAI, we survey protected natural areas in teams, both during the week and on weekends, and encourage reports from home gardens, botanical gardens, recreational parks - wherever butterfllies find themselves and you find them.
Our MBC survey teams have made at least one visit to 54 of our approximately 150 intended Miami-Dade protected natural areas, including restricted pine rocklands and hammocks, special access federally managed bases and stations, offshore keys in Biscayne National Park, off-the-beaten-path areas of the Deering Estate at Cutler, Zoo Miami, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, newly restored areas of Virginia Key, as well as familiar recreational parks, such as AD Barnes Park, where viable habitat can be found. This winter, activity in the aproximately 50 Monroe County sites will ramp up.
While our priority and focus is the suite of state-listed imperiled species, we list all butterfly species observed on a survey -- and even the "common" butterflies surprise us.
We have been surprised by swarms (well, almost swarms) of Variegated Fritillaries at the edge of a little-known hammock n the redlands; Variegated Fritillaries are not FNAI-listed as imperiled, but finding them in huge numbers is also not a high probability event. What were they up to? Nectaring with gusto in lush patches of Phyla nodiflora (aka, Fog Fruit, Frog Fruit, and Creeping Charlie) and nearby Spanish Needle (Bidens alba).
Another species in unusally large numbers this year, although not an imperiled species, is the Sleepy Orange. Dennis Olle, MBC Vice President for Conservation, has observed proliferation of the Sleepy Orange's host plant, Sicklepod (Senna obtusifolia), a probable correlate of the surge in the butterfly.
We have been pleased to record large numbers of Dina Yellows, one of the state-listed imperiled species, at the edges of any hammocks, urban and rural, with Florida Bitterbush (Picramnia pentandra).
Another state-listed species with ephemeral habits, the Lyside Sulphur, has also appeared, and is breeding, after a long absence in both Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties, in natural areas, botanical gardens, and home gardens where they find Lignumvitae (both the native Guaiacum sanctum and the Caribbean G. officinale), as well as Vera Wood (Bulnesia arborea) and in Key West, Cuban Lysiloma (Lysiloma sabicu).
On the other hand, Dingy Purplewings and Florida Whites have been missing in action from reliable hammock sites this summer. FNAI has identified the Florida White as a species of particular concern owing to its precipitous decline.
Thanks to Mickey Wheeler for her Dina Yellow and to Ron Nuehring for a Florida White before they went missing, a Dingy Purplewing (also MIA), and a Lyside Sulphur.
FNAI surveys are NOT posted on our public calendar due to restricted access to many of the areas being surveyed. If you are a NABA member, you love to go butterflying, you like learning about new places and rare butterfly species, and you want to learn more about this 3-year project, please email email@example.com. Over a dozen of our members are active with the FNAI surveys of imperiled butterflies.
Yet another way to help a struggling species is by way of butterfly gardening:
the Atala Re-location Project
Gardeners growing Coontie can take credit for the Atala's survival in South Florida. Enough butterfly gardens in enough neighborhoods can provide the necessary corridors for a species to continue to survive in a suburban environment.
Thanks to Becky Smith for capturing a trio of Atalas just after they emerged.
The Atala Hairstreak is one of our South Florida butterfly icons, known for its striking black wings dotted with neon turquoise, and flaring bright orange-red on its abdomen and hind wing basal area. Its caterpillars feed communally on Zamia integrifolia (Coontie) and pupate on the same plant – giving the butterfly gardener a sensational show, if they are willing to abide the raggedy state of their well munched Coonties.
The Atala is one of our state-listed imperiled butterflies. Once thought to be one of the most common butterflies in Florida, the Atala lost ground when its host plant, Zamia integrifolia (Coontie), was decimated by the arrowroot industry, which was active from the mid- to late 1800s, until the 1920s. Slow-growing Coontie proved impractical to raise commercially, and once the wild crops had been destroyed, the industry waned. However, rampant development then precluded the plant’s ability to re-establish itself, and the Atala was believed by many to be extinct until it was rediscovered by Roger Hammer on Key Biscayne in 1979. By then, the native plant movement was forging ahead and many gardeners were planting natives, including Coontie. The landscape use of Coontie correlated with the Atala’s comeback, and the butterfly has since waxed to relative abundance and then waned in cycles that are not clearly understood. The instability of Atala populations has placed it on the Florida Natural Areas Inventory (FNAI) list of precarious species in the state.
2011 has seen an upswing in Atalas in some places. They can be seen at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, enjoying the Lisa D. Anness Butterfly Garden, and they have been prolific at one of our local botanical institutions with extensive cycad collections, including Coontie. The latter facility, recognizing that the Atala is an imperiled species, has called for help in collecting and re-locating caterpillars and pupae.
In response, a NABA relocation project has been mounted. Both Miami Blue and Broward Chapters of NABA, in collaboration with NABA member, Sandy Koi who is studying the Atala at the University of Florida, Gainesville, have designated point persons who receive Atala caterpillars and pupae on a routine schedule, and arrange transfer to interested gardeners. Participating gardeners are provided with information on the Atala and the methods of effective re-location; they are also asked by Sandy Koi to complete a garden survey and on that basis, they “qualify” to adopt Atalas. Requirements include, among other things, sufficient Coontie plants and nectar sources. Qualified gardeners are then put on the list to be contacted when caterpillars and pupae are available. Point persons for each chapter work closely with adoptive gardeners to ensure safe transport and introduction to the new environment. On a weekly basis, adoptive gardeners complete and email to Sandy Koi a brief tally of the Atala activity on the one of their plants with the most caterpillars.
A dozen or more prospective butterfly gardeners in Miami-Dade are signed up to participate in this effort and the first Miami-Dade placements occurred in August. Several subsequent distributions took place in during the fall months. A number of Broward gardeners have also received caterpillars and pupae. Atala distribution is also happening at several parks and natural areas where suitable habitat and host plants occur and ideally where a current or past history of Atala presence is established. In Miami-Dade, nearly 500 Atalas have been placed in no less than nine parks or natural areas, and one magnet school with an environmental mission.
The project has saved many Atalas, but has also generated many questions: Do Atala caterpillars adjust if they are moved from a species of rare (and exotic) cycad at the botanical center to another in a home garden where Zamia integrifolia (=pumila) is sure to be grown? How do caterpillars and pupae travel best? What collecting methods are best? Out of these efforts, there is much to learn about restoring and supporting an imperiled species that until the late 1970’s, was thought to be extinct, due to habitat loss.
There are several more ways in which members can contribute to our conservation agenda:
Hands-on help for butterfly habitats, parks, and natural areas Unbelievable as it seems, trash dumping in national parks is the choice of some residents and businesses, including heavy, harmful industrial debris such as discarded tires. The Miami Blue Chapter thanks Gary Pappas for facilitating the removal of dumped tires from the Chekika unit of Everglades National Park, one of South Florida's richest butterfly areas. Read more.
Conservation/ advocacy letters Our Conservation Chair alerts us to situations in which citizen letters and emails to government agencies and/or politicians are needed; he supplies the talking points, but it’s important that these letters and emails are in an individual’s own style. We need letter writers and emailers from time to time who can turn around a short letter quickly.
Conservation meetings Our Conservation Chair attends many meetings in South Florida related to butterfly issues; at times he is unable to cover a given meeting and needs a stand-in. You would be well briefed in order to know the background of issues and what’s going on. However, you would not be expected to speak, but only to represent MBC, and take careful notes.
Butterfly Days, our signature event in partnership with Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, annually brings a strong conservation message through its lecture program. Volunteer for Butterfly Days and attend the conservation programs.
The Miami Blue Chapter President and Vice President for Conservation participate with the Imperiled Butterflies Workgroup and interested members are encouraged to take part.
Our Miami Blue Chapter of NABA and our Vice President for Conservation have taken a vigorous collaborative role in this project. Composed of local, state, and federal agencies, NABA, and the University of Florida, the IBWG was born out of efforts to deal with conservation and management issues surrounding the state-endangered Miami Blue (Cyclargus thomasi bethunebakeri), including habitat management, mosquito control pesticide application, and captive breeding and reintroduction. While efforts may be "too little, too late" for the Miami Blue, important lessons have been learned and valuable partnerships have been established. The IBWG hopes to build on these accomplishments by facilitating the regular exchange of information between agencies, identifying research priorities and educational needs, and catalyzing the development of additional critical partnerships that are needed to assist with butterfly recovery.