Silent Spring: All Over Again

Dateline: The Washington Post (Monday July 1, 2013) “Butterfly species fading away as environmental stresses take toll.”

I live at the bottom of the thermal belt in central Virginia: bottom altitude ~500 feet and topping out at around 2,500 feet. This altitude zone just as well might have been called the orchard zone. I grew up below the thermal belt.  The eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains from North Carolina near the Coweeta LTER research site CWT. In Carolina there is a short railway known as the Thermal Belt.  The thermal belt is indeed a warm zone colder above and below.  The growing season is longer at altitudes within the thermal belt. The thermal zone is great for orchards.  However the current orchards  rely on bi-weekly applications of “bug killers” appropriately intended for specific pests and at particular phenophase. Collateral damage to insect not engaged in eating apples and peaches. Butterflies and moths are among the collateral.

My father, farmed, grew two crab apple trees!  I don’t remember any orchards where I grew up some 30 miles north of Philadelphia on Pennsylvania’s Piedmont east of its blue ridge. My father was into iris and Christmas trees for profit. Neither required pesticides. The iris did require a weapon to help in its’ war against the iris bore., e.g. a penknife does the job. When you break apart an iris clump for propagation transplant iris you can see the little grub and can flick them out with your knife. Back then, in the 1950s, it was easy to be green and we were.

My father was a museum wonk.  I think he might have had a silver tongue as he was able to chat-up the curator and soon we were pulling out drawers containing the specimen in collections. I took up butterfly collecting and trading and moth raising, mostly Hyalophora cercropia. My father learned of a cercropia “rancher” in Rahway, New Jersey to buy us some cocoons!  I was ready, hatching to come following leaf-out. What a trip! The hatching happened. The females with their allure attracted males from far and wide. Mesh bags stitched together into which males and females were placed, eggs laid and hatched.  The eating began. The larvae ate cherry, willow and apple leaves. By the end of summer I had cocoons to sell for the next year.  I was not very good at marketing.  That was more than 50 years ago.  All to the point, moths and butterflies were abundant back then.  In my days in Crozet, Virginia at the bottom of the thermal belt, in the orchard zone, in need of chemicals for success. I have seen one luna moth, Actias luna and one Polyphemus, Antheraea polyphemus that is all. 

The orchard  got its pesticides by air as a mist. The mist droplets of their size have very low terminal velocities and so the mist remains in the air for quite a while. “We know that it is becoming increasingly popular for individual homeowners to use misting systems to spray low levels of pesticides in search of mosquitos. Other insects pay a heavy price. As those become more abundant, we have to evaluate if those are contributing to the decline”. I remember times when I was misted in a restaurant patio in Nevada. I just assumed that was nothing more than water. However, if the problem is the mosquito the misting fluid might contain “low” levels of a pesticide and high levels of lawyers.

Butterflies and moths have leaf-chomping larvae. Take away their phyllosphere and they lose portions of their feeding grounds.  Green citizens can become lepidoptera friendly in their horticultural choices. Planting a Buddleja salejena will bring the butterflies in hoards. Now you must take some care as there are around 100 species of Buddleja, the butterfly bush, and you might over do it.  In any case, cultivating habitat extent and habitat diversity are good general watch-words for butterfly and moth conservation.


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