In honor of Learn About Butterflies Day (March 14), you can discover the many benefits of butterflies in helping make our planet bloom, starting right here in South Dakota.
Beyond their obvious beauty, these delicate, winged wonders also help play a critical role in our environment by pollinating plants, much like birds, bees, bats, and even beetles. Known as “pollinators,” we need to help them survive and thrive by protecting their habitat and providing an adequate food source. Because without their pollinating efforts, our own food source would be limited.
According to scientists, more than 85% of all flowering plants on the planet need help from pollinators, serving more than 180,000 different plant species and more than 1,200 crops.
About 80% of all plant pollination is performed by animals, which is called biotic. The remaining 20% of plant species are mostly pollinated by wind (98%) and a few by water (2%).
Most staple food crops such as corn, wheat and rice are only pollinated naturally by the wind. See how corn is pollinated here.
Yet our flying pollinators are very important for agriculture as they give us hay and forage for dairy and beef cattle, as well as nuts, oilseed crops and many diverse fruits and vegetables. It's estimated that one of every three bites of food we eat is thanks to pollinators!
Because of this, South Dakota farmers and ranchers help protect the pollinators by volunteering to add and maintain habitats for food, shelter and host plants on their land. USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offers expert advice and cost-sharing assistance to encourage farmers to choose conservation practices that benefit butterflies and bees as well as the soil's health, without compromising profitability.
Across the state, numerous solutions provide pollinator habitat on land owned by our farmers and ranchers. These conservation practices range from contour buffer strips and conservation cover, to filter strips, integrated pest management, prescribed grazing and more.
To help the butterflies (and bees) do their valuable pollinating work, South Dakota's farmers and ranchers often allow milkweed and other native grasses and flowers to grow in non-crop areas, such as fence rows, road ditches, buffer strips, and on conservation-protected lands.
For example, the farm corporation of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe turned the "leftover" areas between their 72 center-pivot irrigation units into 57 pollinator and wildlife habitats with the help of biologist Joel Bich. That results in more than 150 acres of plants that butterflies, bees and birds — even pheasant and deer — visit year-round. And a 500-acre field enrolled in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was renovated with the "honeybee upgrade" per the Farm Service Agency (FSA).
"We've learned it doesn't take much effort or space — way less than an acre — to see a rebound in bee and butterfly numbers," said Joel Bich, biologist for the Tribe. "You'll see one lone Rocky Mountain bee plant and can hear the buzzing from 20 feet away."
SOUTH DAKOTA’S OWN BUTTERFLY HOUSE
While you can’t find butterflies in your South Dakota backyards in early spring, you can find plenty of them year-round in Sioux Falls at The Butterfly House and Aquarium facility in Sertoma Park.
For nearly 20 years, this butterfly garden has offered visitors “an interactive experience that allows you to learn, connect and remember,” said Audrey Otto, CEO of the attraction. “We believe it’s an ideal learning environment for both kids and adults.”
Inside the tropical 80-85˚ F enclosure, there are more than 800 butterflies at any one time, but most only live for two to four weeks, a typical life cycle for most butterfly species.
Guided by a pair of Midwestern-born biologists, Jenae Olson and Colton Eckstrand, the entire environment — both plants and butterflies — includes up to 100 species of winged insects and more than 50 species of flora inside the conservatory.
MUCH MORE THAN MONARCHS
While it’s probably the most-identifiable butterfly, the Monarch species are not kept at The Butterfly House because they wouldn’t be content. These butterflies make a 3,000-mile migration every year between Mexico and Canada and back. The “Monarch Highway” stretches right through the Midwest, including South Dakota.
If you know much about the nearly endangered Monarchs, you probably know they love — and desperately need — milkweed. As a food source and plant host, milkweed’s toxin offers an added form of protection against the butterfly’s predators. You can purchase packets of milkweed seeds for a $1 donation at the gift shop of The Butterfly House or online through seed providers.
Butterflies native to South Dakota include: Painted Ladies, often confused as Monarchs; Black Swallowtail; Red Admiral; and Dakota Skipper. Of the estimated 14,500 butterfly species in the world, 177 live in South Dakota and 69 have been documented in Badlands.
PAUSE WITH POLLINATORS
With South Dakota native Audrey Otto overseeing the self-funded conservatory, the staff and volunteers of The Butterfly House and Aquarium thoroughly enjoy sharing the many benefits of butterflies with the attraction’s nearly 75,000 annual visitors.
“And not all the benefits are for the environment…some are for us!” she said. “Learning and healing with nature cause positive physical changes in visitors of all ages. People who spend time observing nature benefit from lower blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate.”