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Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
Ellington Agricultural Center
440 Hogan Road
Nashville, TN 37220
(615) 781-6500
Tennessee Butterfly Monitoring Network

Your backyard can be your refuge, your place to relax and escape. With the right landscaping, it can also be a refuge for some very important animals: pollinators. Butterflies are just one of many types of pollinators, including bees, birds, bats, beetles and more.

In their search for sweet flower nectar, pollinators assist flowering plant reproduction by carrying pollen from one flower to another. In doing so, they are responsible for helping 75% to 95% of flowering plants reproduce. That includes more than 1200 different crops! It is estimated that one out of every three bites of food that you eat is available because of pollinators. Fruit and seed production linked to pollinators provides food for approximately 25% of birds and mammals as well.

Unfortunately, this free “ecosystem service” is not guaranteed. Many species of pollinators are in decline due to pesticide use, introduced diseases, and most importantly, habitat loss. As habitats become more fragmented, each fragment becomes more important. Your yard can be an important link that connects patches of habitat together to create enough habitat for pollinators to survive. As cities expand, urban and suburban native landscapes will help pollinators (and us) to live better.

Helping our little helpers

Since native plants are adapted to live in our climate, soils, and ecosystems, they provide food for more wildlife and pollinators and tend to survive better than exotic plants. Check with your local nursery to find out what native plants will work in your yard’s conditions. Be sure to check into characteristics such as the size of the mature plant, whether it is perennial or annual, and whether it is truly native to your area or to “eastern North America.” There are also plenty of resources online including xerces.org, pollinator.org, and a searchable database at wildflower.org/plants/. Starting with one corner of your yard and expanding each year until you have gone completely native will help keep the project manageable.

As you increase the native plants in your yard, you will likely see an increase in butterflies and other pollinators as well as songbirds and other local wildlife. You can monitor your success by participating in citizen science projects. Take pictures of the butterflies you see and upload them to butterfliesandmoths.org or ebutterfly.org to have them identified and recorded as sightings data. Inaturalist.org will identify any animal or plant you photograph, record it as sightings data, and allow you to compile lists of what you have seen.

Keeping watch on local public lands

Many public lands such as parks and wildlife refuges have staff who are actively working to manage for native wildlife. Measuring their success depends on monitoring changes in wildlife populations. Butterflies depend on different food sources as caterpillars and adults; caterpillars tend to rely on one or several species (such as the well-known example of the Monarch Butterfly and milkweed). The adults nectar from a wide variety of plants over the course of the warm season. Because of the varied diet during their life cycle, healthy and diverse butterfly populations can be good indicators of plant diversity.

Tennessee Butterfly Monitoring Network

The Tennessee Butterfly Monitoring Network (TBMN) is a citizen science program of Zoo Knoxville that monitors changes to butterfly population densities on managed lands. We train volunteers to monitor butterflies on local public lands to help land managers understand the effects of land management practices. Currently, TBMN volunteers are monitoring routes at Seven Islands State Birding Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TVA Norris Dam, and TWRA Forks of the River. We are working to add routes in Middle and West Tennessee in the coming year.

TBMN also offers programs to inspire everyone to enjoy and protect butterflies and other pollinators. To learn more about the network or how to volunteer, visit us at www.facebook.com/TBMN.ORG/.

Then go out in your yard, pull up an exotic invasive plant, replace it with a native, and relax in your improved refuge!

View or download a photo-illustrated version of this article on the TBMN.

Article and photo by Steve McGaffin, Curator of Education, Zoo Knoxville

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