Burnt-orange wings speckled with white, the queen butterflies crowd a single blue flossflower plant in Las Milpitas Community Farm. Sulphur butterflies pass by on papery yellow wings. Figeater beetles drip from the branches of a velvet mesquite.
Meanwhile, conservation scientist Sergio Avila and a group of students from the University of Sonora stalk, nets raised, between stands of sunflowers. They are creating a small collection of butterfly specimens to help gardeners at Las Milpitas identify those most common at the farm. Their efforts are part of a larger project called Mariposas of the Milpa, or Butterflies of the Farm, focused on creating pollinator habitat in central Tucson while increasing the community’s appreciation for the services pollinators provide in the food-growing process. A collaboration between the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Mariposas of the Milpa connects pollinators to gardens while forming partnerships between organizations and people from diverse walks of life.
Pollinators include the insects, birds, and bats that, in the process of gathering their own food, move pollen from one part of a plant to another, enabling fertilization, and thus the production of fruit and seed. Bolstered by two rainy seasons, the Sonoran Desert’s diverse plant life attracts an abundance of pollinators, including more than 700 bee species. This bioregion buzzes, literally, with life.
Pesticide use, habitat loss, and climate change, however, threaten pollinators around the world. According to Pollinator Partnership, more than 50 percent of managed honey bee colonies in the United States were lost in the last 10 years. According to The Xerces Society, wintering monarch populations in Mexico have declined by 80 percent since 1994, with comparable losses at wintering sites in coastal California. Researchers record smaller declines in numerous other species, including the rufous hummingbird, whose successful transcontinental migration depends upon the health and timing of flowering plants.
It’s a frightening trend, considering that a third of our food depends on animal pollination.
Mariposas of the Milpa offers strategies at the local level. The Sonoran Desert abounds in native bee species, not to mention other pollinators, and building habitat with local flora can be vital to their conservation.
According to Kim Franklin, an entomologist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum working alongside Avila, native bees are more specific in the plants they visit than are honey bees, which are introduced from Europe. “Native bees will not just go to any flower,” says Franklin.
Consider cactus bees, which specialize in the pollen and nectar of cactus, mallows, and sunflowers. Or squash and gourd bees, which can be found sleeping in the same flowers they pollinate, those of the family cucurbitaceae.
“We are used to the European honey bee, so we think of them as the only pollinator,” says Avila. “If we focus on native bees and we give them what they need, then that ecosystem function is covered. Having a tiny garden in your home will make a huge difference for local bees.”
Since its inception in 2015, Mariposas of the Milpa has connected with four schools, contributed more than 500 plants to private gardens, and planted five pollinator gardens in community spaces.
Las Milpitas Community Farm provided home for one such garden, which included several varieties of milkweed, a favorite of migrating monarchs. “We grow certain plots just with flowers to attract the pollinators,” says Erick Meza, the farm education coordinator at the Food Bank. “We have learned through this project that pollinators have a really important part in the chain.”
Pollinator gardens are butterfly restaurants. “If you’re a bird or a butterfly, and you see the garden from the sky, you see there’s a concentration of food right here,” says Avila, pointing to the ground.
In July, Las Milpitas hosted a community night where Avila and student volunteers from the University of Sonora, including undergraduate Luis Grijalva, talked about the role of pollinators in food production. Grijalva hoped to help people realize that “insects are actually animals, alive, not just a thing eating my tomatoes,” he said. “The desert isn’t this wasteland of death that you usually see in the movies. It’s alive, there’s so much out there.” Grijalva would know. He grew up in the Sonoran Desert outside Hermosillo and fell in love with the variety of insects attracted to one of the few lights near his home.
It’s this kind of binational interaction that Avila, himself born in the state of Zacatecas, hopes to cultivate.
“Mexico also does conservation,” Avila says, “and we have young scientists like these guys, they are bilingual. It’s breaking a paradigm about Mexico. There’s a lot of value in how we grew up, how we were raised, and how we learned things in school.”
Funded by a $68,700 grant from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), a trinational government organization dedicated to protecting shared environments, the project inspired a collaborative spirit that transcends borders between the United States and Mexico and Canada.
Just as butterflies need a garden of diverse plants, conservation efforts need the support of a diverse community. Avila strives to bring pollinator awareness and gardening out of the Desert Museum and into the backyards of people who may not have space or money to grow their own food, and to expand the audience beyond birdwatchers, hobby hikers, and those who already have memberships to conservation organizations. In particular, he believes tapping into the experiences of indigenous people will reveal “books of knowledge that you will never read anywhere,” he says. “They have thousands of years of observation that make their knowledge valuable and true.”
An aquaponics system bubbles in Landon Walls’ classroom at Hiaki High School on the Pascua Yaqui Reservation. In the top tier, sprouted from porous volcanic rock, a Yoeme basil reaches toward the light, its flowers gone to seed. Next to a sign that reads “chickens are descendants of dinosaurs, respect your elders,” a door leads to a garden complete with cactus, roses, and fruit trees.
For Walls, these are primary teaching tools.
In 2012, students taking Walls’ Community Based Education course decided to focus on improving and raising awareness around health and diet. They started by building a garden.
Through the hard labor of Hiaki’s students, the dirt lot behind the classroom transformed into a series of sunken beds fed by a rainwater harvesting system that collects runoff from the ramada and gutters.
And in 2015, Walls and Avila partnered to bring pollinator education to the garden. As part of the Mariposas of the Milpa project, Avila brought pollinator-attractive starter plants for students to put in the ground.
It didn’t take long to observe the effects.
“When this is in full bloom, there are so many butterflies and hummingbirds back here, it’s amazing,” says Walls. “You see anywhere from five to eight different types of butterflies, moths as well. We’ll probably get two kinds of hummingbirds.”
Students also scatter wildflower seeds throughout the year. “I have a big bag and we just throw them around,” says Walls.
Walls uses pollinator-plant interactions to bring home important lessons. “When you look at the overall world, things work together,” he says. “Humans interact with the natural environment and the natural environment interacts with the humans.”
Partnerships with local organizations make the garden sustainable. “It shows the kids that there are so many people that want to help and that have expertise, too, that you’re not alone.”
Encouraged by the growth of the school garden, some students began planting flowers and vegetables at home. Those who once expressed dislike for vegetables found they quite liked them after growing them from a seed and harvesting the final product with their own hands. In class, students picked tomatoes and peppers for salsa, brewed tea, and assembled bouquets of roses and wildflowers to decorate the room. They’ve even worked to bring gardens to the neighboring culture museum and senior center.
Hiaki’s students possess a deep sense of ownership and pride for their garden, reinforced by a respect for the interdependent relationship between plants, pollinators, and humans.
“Teaching people how to grow their own food, I think it’s one of the most powerful things we can do,” says Avila. “The conservation of natural communities and human communities, at a local level, is an achievable goal.” ✜
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. DesertMusuem.org.
Saraiya Kanning is a freelance writer, silk painter, and birder living in Tucson.