Butterfly House

Mission Blue Butterfly Source: California Academy of Sciences

Mission Blue Butterfly
Source: California Academy of Sciences

There’s a new building going up in San Francisco, just a block or so from where I used to live when I was right out of college.

It’s got all the bells and whistles of the kind of green, sustainable, fashionable and expensive development one might expect from that city, up to and including the rooftop biosphere and a habitat for endangered butterflies.

The building will have 81 apartments, with one-bedroom rental units listed at between $2950 – $4500/month. Amenities include a rooftop herb garden, an on-site car share program, living walls, rainwater harvesting and solar heating systems.

Okay, I admit that the presence on the ground floor of a Whole Foods store, the notoriously green but pricey organic supermarket, is a bit gratuitously over-the-top. And it looks like I, for one, would never have been able to afford living in this neighborhood when I was a recent graduate.

San Bruno Elfin Butterfly Source: Wikipedia

San Bruno Elfin Butterfly
Source: Wikipedia

The 38 Dolores complex has come in for some criticism – its combination of high prices and all-round green gentrification (and that downstairs Whole Foods market) make it look like an over-the-top enviro-indulgence for the wealthy.

It’s fair enough to say that particular building probably only appeals to a certain socio-economic demographic. And it’s true that this young, wealthy demographic is changing the nature of many San Francisco neighborhoods, especially the Mission.

Bay Checkerspot Butterfly Photo: Leslie Gonzales / WWU

Bay Checkerspot Butterfly
Photo: Leslie Gonzales / WWU

Where the media eye-rolling does actual harm, however, is in making it seem like the upscale nature of this development is reflected in its rainwater harvesting, rooftop gardens or solar heating systems. As if these building aspects are an indulgence alllowed only to the rich.

For modern urban buildings, it could be argued that it is the lack of good building water use, some form of renewable heating and/or power, or the potential for car sharing which should be considered an outdated indulgence.

And sometimes, it’s all in the marketing. Yes, an ‘urban butterfly habitat for endangered butterfly species’ sounds a bit precious. But when we know that a ‘butterfly habitat’ can be as easy as planting a few select flowers, it’s not really all that glamorous, expensive, or difficult to maintain.

I have a ‘butterfly and bee habitat’ in my garden. I call it lavender plants and bee balm flowers.

There are around 30-40 bumblebees in my lavender bushes this year - most colonies only number 50 or less, so I'm assuming an entire nest has taken up residence nearby. Photo: PK Read

My butterfly and bee habitat
Photo: PK Read

*All the endangered butterflies above are among those listed as protected by the 38 Dolores habitat.

Moment of Monarchs

Photo: Discovery Channel

Photo: Discovery Channel

When I was a child, we lived for a time in the U.S. Midwest. One autumn, I had the great good fortune of experiencing the migration of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). I didn’t even have to go on a field trip – the migrating flock flew right through our schoolyard in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The red brick school building, the featureless green lawns and black asphalt were, for a short time, obscured and transformed into a bright fluttering cloud of orange and black. We were led outside, class by class, to bathe in the butterflies. Of course, our science teacher couldn’t let a chance like that go unwasted, so we were also provided with capturing jars and small amounts of chloroform. Thus we became one more migratory hazard on the monarch’s annual 2000 mile (3200 km) trip from Canada to Mexico.

The monarch’s winter breeding ground in Mexico was discovered in 1976, allowing for better assessments of the overall population. Regular monitoring only began twenty years ago. And the overall trend for the past decade has been downwards.

According to this National Geographic article, the main causes are temperature extremes due to climate change, and the loss of the monarch’s main source of food as well as host plants for monarch eggs, the milkweed (Asclepias genus). The milkweed, a flowering plant with milky sap that is toxic to mostĀ animals, imbues the monarch with a natural defense – the butterflies themselves become toxic to predators. The once common milkweed has been eradicated over large stretches of the Midwest, partially due to herbicides and partially due to land conversion to farming. Monarchs are often seen around corn and soy fields where milkweed no longer exists.

What caught my eye was a comment on the National Geographic article: “Monarch butterflies and other pollinators (are) actually abundant and doing well in the herbicide tolerant GMO corn and soybean belt of the upper Midwest USA.” The commenter provides as proof a video he shot last year of hundreds of monarchs in a field. It’s hard to argue individual experience of abundance, even against evidence-based measurements taken over the course of years from various locations along the migratory route and the mothership grounds in Mexico.

When I was a kid and standing in that multitude of butterflies, it would have been virtually impossible to persuade me that the overall butterfly population might be in decline, or ever be in decline. Objectively, it felt like I lived in a bountiful universe of soft wings and color, but as it turned out, it was just a moment.

Annual migratory cycle over four generations Source: Journey North


National Geographic article – Monarch butterflies hit new low