Liz Wheeler keeps butterfly pins, pictures and statues in and around her West Seneca home. The life of the insect – which starts as a caterpillar, becomes a butterfly and then lays eggs to renew the cycle – is symbolic for her family.
Her grandmother Jean, who died a few years ago, loved butterflies.
“When she started with cancer, they became a symbol of her changing life,” Wheeler said as tears filled her eyes. “Just how life evolves for you, and how when change comes it’s not necessarily bad.”
Wheeler, who has a multicolored butterfly tattoo on her forearm with “Hope” written in the middle, and her husband, Brian, took their three children to the Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens on Sunday for the launch of its first-ever Native Butterfly Exhibit. The exhibit has 15 to 20 Monarch butterflies, which are native to Western New York and parts of Canada.
The butterfly display and its adjacent chrysalis and caterpillar enclosure show the butterfly in its different stages of life. The exhibit will be open until early fall and is included in general admission, according to Marketing Director Erin Grajek.
The Eastern Monarch Butterfly Farm in Clarence supplies the butterflies. The Botanical Gardens, in collaboration with the farm and a private donor, funded the new exhibit.
To celebrate the opening Sunday, the Eastern Monarch Butterfly Farm set up an enclosed tent where visitors could interact with Monarch butterflies. John, Wheeler’s 9-year-old son, laughed as a Monarch landed on his palm, expanding its big orange and black wings. John often chases butterflies in his yard in West Seneca but has never been able to catch one.
“It feels like prickles touching you,” he said.
Throughout the summer, the gardens will be selling plants on which caterpillars and butterflies feed. Grajek hopes those who visit the exhibit purchase the host plants – particularly milkweed, the Monarch caterpillar’s only food source – for their gardens, to sustain the dwindling pollinator populations in Western New York. Residents can plant milkweed in their gardens for caterpillars to eat, as well as for butterflies to get nectar and lay their eggs.
Sunday, the Wheeler family bought milkweed, which has been disappearing from American fields over the past 10 years because farmers have switched to genetically modified corn and soybeans that are resistant to the herbicide glyphosate that kills other plants.
The Wheelers plan to plant the milkweed in the new garden they’re planting next to their front porch. Wheeler hopes the milkweed bring more butterflies around their home because she spots them only a couple of times per year.
To Wheeler, a butterfly’s symbol of the renewal and cycle of life is important for her 9-year-old, 5-year-old and 1-year-old children to see while growing up.
“Not all change is bad, that’s what they need to understand,” Wheeler said. “There’s a lot of changes and not everyone’s around for a long time and then things do happen. It might be a bad thing for a little while and you might not understand, but something good always comes out of it in some way, no matter what that situation may be.”
Butterflies, like bees, are pollinators that help produce flowers, which in turn contribute to producing food.
“As a gardener, you kind of have to get used to half-eaten leaves because that’s a good thing and that means the caterpillars are there, they’re getting healthy and happy and they’ll eventually turn into a butterfly,” Grajek said.
The Eastern Monarch Butterfly Farm will switch out the butterflies every couple weeks, as a butterfly’s lifespan is several weeks long. David O’Donnell, the owner of Eastern Monarch in Clarence, will bring in native butterflies like Viceroys, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Mourning Cloaks, White Admirals, Cabbage Whites and Common Sulfars.
Butterflies typically live for four to six weeks. Monarchs born in late August, though, migrate to Mexico and can live up to a year.
But in the last decade, there has been a steady decrease in the size of the migration. People often tear out milkweed from their yards because they think it smells bad or is an unnecessary plant. Farmers use herbicides more regularly throughout the country, which has killed many of the plants, according to the Internet website World Wild Life.
The number of Monarch butterflies that made it to Mexico in November 2013 was the lowest since 1993. Monarchs occupied 1.65 acres of forestland in Mexico last year, a 43.7 percent decrease from December 2012, World Wild Life reported.
The Wheelers hope their new milkweed plants will help to keep more butterflies alive. Plus, the more butterflies that fly around their home, the more examples there will be for their children to witness the natural cycle of life.