This story also appears in our University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Agricultural Research Center Magazine. Stop by your local Research Center to pick up a copy! You can view the magazine online by clicking here: Road to Discovery.
Education is a key component of the Jefferson Farm and Garden mission. Numerous agricultural topics are covered and taught at Jefferson, including current issues, such as the ones facing pollinators.
One of the biggest threats for the pollinator population is a loss of habitat. Jefferson has been devoted to providing that habitat since it reopened in 2015, showcasing a native butterfly house, a two-acre wildlife meadow and productive beehives. It is in the process of constructing a monarch waystation as well.
“We’re trying to tie all of our pollinator efforts together,” said Amy Weeks, director of Jefferson Farm and Garden. “We had a great start with the wildflower meadow – and we’ve been able to add to the value by expanding the diversity of wildflowers present. It’s important to us to be able to show all aspects of pollinators and how important they are to the agricultural landscape.”
At the center of the pollinator education has been the native butterfly house. That showcase has been the first learning tool Weeks has used to get individuals interested in the importance of pollinators.
The house is unique in that it shows all four stages of the butterfly lifecycle. The Heart of Missouri Master Gardeners have planted a variety of host plants, which give larvae a food source after they are hatched. There are also a number of nectar plants which are food and energy sources for adult butterflies. Every plant featured is suitable for the butterflies exhibited.
“The process is really fascinating,” Weeks said. “The adult butterflies lay their tiny eggs, which are about the size of a pinhead, on host plants. After about 10 days to two weeks they hatch into larvae. The larvae, or caterpillars, get bigger by voraciously eating the leaves on the host plants. The caterpillars grow quickly and soon form a chrysalis, or pupa. Once they emerge as adult butterflies, they begin to feed on nectar plants and search for a mate. Their lifespan is pretty short, with most species not living longer than a month.
“It’s important for us to provide the appropriate food and habitat for each butterfly to be successful through their lifecycle.”
Weeks learned early on that Eric Carle’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, is extremely true – caterpillars eat a ton.
“Our caterpillars ate just about everything our first year in operation,” Weeks said. “We were removing about 30 larvae out of the butterfly house every weekend and finding new homes for them just so that each caterpillar could thrive.
“A new addition that we’ve implemented is a caterpillar café. This section is located right outside of the butterfly house and allows us to move the larvae outside to host plants. It gives all of the larvae a little more room to operate and grow. Plus, guests can walk through the café and see the caterpillars in action.”
There are a variety of butterflies showcased in the butterfly house, including black, giant, zebra and tiger swallowtails, monarchs, the question mark butterfly and red admiral, among many others.
The butterfly house is located right next to the two-acre wildlife meadow, meaning guests can tour the house before seeing wild pollinators in action.
“We positioned the butterfly house close to the meadow to tie them the experiences together,” Weeks said. “The butterfly house offers a more controlled environment, whereas the meadow allows visitors to see how pollinators work in the wild.”
The meadow contains a variety of established native plants. Weeks is trying to turn the area into a certified wildlife habitat.
“We want to diversify the area,” Weeks said. “We want to add more wildflowers and more color to encourage more pollinators to stop by. There is already a lot of activity out there, but we want it to be as inviting as possible.”
Jefferson Farm and Garden has been home to productive beehives for a little longer than a year. While the hives are located away from public areas, for safety purposes, they are currently being used as an educational showcase.
“The bees are just now producing honey,” Weeks said. “Eventually, we would like to market that honey. For now, though, we’re focused on educating visitors about the importance of bees in nature and agriculture.”
Jefferson Farm and Garden has worked closely with the Heart of Missouri Master Gardeners on all of its pollinator projects. Missouri Master Gardeners, an MU Extension program, not only do work around Jefferson, they also help interested individuals do their part to aid pollinators.
“Our volunteers go the extra mile,” Weeks said. “They are a great resource for interested individuals who want to do their part to help pollinators at their own homes. The Heart of Missouri Master Gardeners are critical to this mission. There is definitely a translational component to this and we want to support that effort in any way that we can.”
Jefferson Farm and Garden has promoted its pollinator work in several ways, including its annual butterfly festival. The event features activities, vendors and walking tours for visitors of all ages. The goal of the event is to showcase the importance of pollinators in everyday life.
“Pollinators are responsible for so much, including much of the food we eat,” Weeks said. “They’re so important for the environment – and it’s our job to explain their importance to the public. We need pollinators to keep our ecosystem in balance. We’re working to do our part by educating the public and providing more habitat.”