WATER WISE: The vital role of butterflies

By Cado Daily, Water Wise Program Coordinator, Senior

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Few things are more delightful than watching a colorful butterfly flit from flower to flower, sipping nectar in a summer garden. 

Yet the butterfly plays a much more valuable role in our lives than just giving us pleasure. Butterflies, along with many other flower visitors, are crucial links to our survival. They are pollinators.

At a talk this Saturday, the world of plants and pollinators will burst alive with the fascinating presentation by Karen LeMay and Petey Mesquitey, both passionate proponents of our local flora and fauna. Karen has more than 200 local native plants in her garden that have attracted 178 species of birds, 115 species of butterflies and much more. Petey, owner of Spadefoot Nursery, specializing in local native plants, will bring plants for sale after the talk.

Pollinators give us life. Without butterflies, bees, bats, birds and rodents transferring pollen from flower to flower, our food choices would be quite limited and our landscapes rather dull.

Let’s take grass, for example. Grasses are wind-pollinated and do not need to attract pollinators with colorful or aromatic flowers. The wind picks up the pollen (achoo!) from inconspicuous flowers and eventually the pollen fertilizes another grass plant enabling the growth of a seed.

Granted, pollen creates havoc in our sinuses, but its value far outweighs our discomfort. Without pollen, a great variety of plants could not adapt to a changing world. Plants rely on pollinators to move the tiny packets jammed full of DNA from flower to flower. We rely on the abundant and great variety of foods pollinators produce.

Besides wind, insects and other animals also pollinate plants. The need for a plant to attract pollinating animals works wonderfully for gardeners. Pollinators are watchable wildlife, and colorful and scented flowers attract pollinators. However, for the best of both worlds, gardeners need to be matchmakers.

By growing plants native to the area, gardeners offer a buffet of foods just right for pollinator palates. Unlike introduced exotic plants, native plants and their pollinators have evolved together and in many cases cannot survive without each other.

Yucca plants and moths illustrate this mutual dependency. All yucca plants depend on yucca moths to reproduce and vice versa.

For example, when the creamy-white soaptree yucca flower opens, a female yucca moth visits it at night with a ball of pollen. The moth pushes the pollen into the flower and then lays eggs. After hatching, the larvae eat some of the seeds produced by the moth’s pollination.

The endangered lesser long-nosed bat is another pollinator dependent on local plants for survival. These nectar-feeding migratory bats rely on sweet-smelling agave flowers (and saguaro flowers in the Sonoran desert) as a crucial food source. After feeding from flower to flower, the bat’s snouts are thick with pollen indicating well-pollinated flowers.

The local plant-animal partnership list is long: Caterpillars of the yellow senna butterfly eat shrubby senna, slimpod and cassia plants, but the exotic Australian senna plant is toxic to these caterpillars; local bumblebees, carpenter bees and leaf cutter bees must vibrate the brilliant yellow senna flowers for fertilization; more than 80 species of native bees visit the creosote bush; and in summer, the dainty kidneywood bush comes alive with marine-blue butterflies sipping nectar from vanilla-scented flowers.

So come on over to UA South on Saturday and find out how fun it is to have a lovely garden while being a part of the fascinating and important world of pollination.

For more information, contact Water Wise at 458-8278 ext. 2141, or on the web at waterwise.arizona.edu.

WATER WISEis a University of Arizona Cochise County Cooperative Extension program whose Partners are Cochise County, the City of Sierra Vista, Ft. Huachuca, the Upper San Pedro Partnership, and Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative.


Attracting pollinators

with native plants

Saturday, 9 to 10:30 a.m.


UA South, 1140 N. Colombo Ave.

Sierra Vista


For more information contact

The Water Wise Program

458-8278 extension 2141


Admission is free


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