Last month, Montclair’s Northeast Earth Coalition announced that the town had been named “Monarch City” by Monarch USA, an organization that promotes the protection of the butterfly, which was placed on the endangered species list in July. Montclair is the second from New Jersey (after Long Branch) and fifth from the Mid-Atlantic region to earn the designation.
Like monarch butterflies, which are just a tiny link in the ecosystem, the environmental coalition’s latest award is just one example of its ongoing work to save pollinators – birds, bees, bats. mice and insects that create the habitats that many animals, including humans, depend on. for food and shelter, and whose numbers are falling sharply. Monarchs, whose numbers have fallen by around 97% over the past 50 years, and bees, which lost almost half of their population between 2020 and 2021are just the best-known example of what some scientists call the insect apocalypse. Many species of birds and bats are also threatened.
Montclair’s environmental leadership began two decades ago when volunteers began going backyard to backyard to help Montclair residents create natural habitats. In 2008, the city was certified by the National Wildlife Federation as the state’s first wildlife community; it is regularly re-certified, most recently in 2019. In 2020, it was named New Jersey’s host city for the Northeast Pollinator Trail Projectin recognition of its corridors of native, pesticide-free plants.
Trina Paulus, the nationally acclaimed Butterfly Lady and author of the 1972 bestseller “Hope for the Flowers,” lives in town and releases monarch butterflies at an annual butterfly festival in Crane Park, along with other residents who raise them from the eggs they find on their milkweed. This year’s release is August 20 at 3 p.m.
Coalition maintains organic vegetable gardens at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, Crane Park and First Congregational Church, which provide Toni’s Kitchen with more than 1,000 pounds of organic produce for food insecure people. Brookdale Park also benefits from coalition volunteers, who have replaced invasive plants there with a pollinator garden. The group has created wildlife habitats and pollinator gardens in many public schools, working with students and teachers.
Inspired by the work of the coalition, this spring the city council passed the Jose German-Gomez Native Species Actnamed after the founder of the Northeast Earth Coalition, which requires that 70% of vegetation planted on city property be native to the region, as native plants and trees have evolved to be uniquely adapted to provide essential food and habitat for pollinators.
The group also fought successfully for reduce the use of gas-powered leaf blowers on residential properties, due to their toxic fumes, noise pollution, contribution to climate change, and dispersal of the beneficial biome of organic matter and topsoil that harbor insects.
A composting program at local places of worship will be launched by the end of the summer.
Russ Stubbles, Founder of Monarch City USA, said, “We are absolutely thrilled to have Montclair with us. Your people are doing all kinds of good things for the environment.”
Despite all the initiatives in town, there is still a lot to do, said German-Gomez. Primary educates homeowners on how to incorporate native plants into their gardens and practices to avoid and support pollinators. Here are her tips on how to make your own backyard more pollinator friendly.
One of the biggest threats to pollinators is the widespread use of herbicides and pesticides on lawns and the spraying of chemicals toxic to mosquitoes and other pests, German-Gomez said. These chemicals cannot target just one type of insect; they are deadly to all insects, birds, bats and butterflies.
This spring, German-Gomez said, Montclair was “buzzing” with pollinators – “It was so beautiful and amazing.” But in the summer, coalition volunteers noticed a virtual absence of insects in the city’s gardens. This coincided with heavy publicity from a mosquito spray company; there was a billboard on Gates Avenue across from Crane Park; several small lawn signs in the park and more at several corners of the 4th arrondissement.
“They spray air with a powerful nozzle that spreads the chemicals into the neighbor’s yard as well as the customer’s,” German said. “We saw how an aggressive marketing campaign by a mosquito spray company decimated the pollinator population.”
On social media, Montclair owners have also complained about mosquito spray. Essex County conducts aerial mosquito spraying, if other mosquito control measures do not work, according to the department’s website.
While it’s legal for residents to hire licensed pest control contractors to spray mosquitoes, experts say it’s not just harmful to pollinators, but ineffective against mosquitoes. According to Deborah Landau, entomologist and conservation scientist at The Nature Conservancy, less than 0.00001% of the pesticide sprayed actually reaches mosquitoes; spraying is more likely to kill butterflies, bees and ladybugs. Mosquitoes also quickly become resistant to pyrethroid treatments.
Instead, remove standing water and, if necessary, use “mosquito dunks,” inexpensive and effective devices placed in water that use bacteria to kill only mosquito larvae, Landau said.
Mottled lantern control is also a threat to pollinators. A recent Rutgers study showed that the three most effective pesticides for killing mottled lanterns also kill pollinators. A benign alternative is scrape egg masses from trees, rocks, and hard surfaces where the bugs lay them in the fall, before they hatch in the spring, and to remove the Ailanthus, their preferred host.
German-Gomez said herbicides used by many local landscaping companies are also deadly to insects and birds, add toxins to our water supply, and are dangerous to pets and children. On Facebook, residents have also complained about neighbors who employ landscapers who spray toxic chemicals floating on their property.
Go native with trees and plants
Planting native plants and trees is vital; they are naturally attractive and accessible to bees, birds and insects, as they have evolved in tandem for millennia. They are easy to grow, require little watering, help groundwater runoff, and are perennials. A few that are recommended for Montclair’s climate and soil are bluebell, columbine, wood phlox and wild violet, the state flower, German-Gomez said. Consider planting an oak tree, which provides food and protection to countless animals and insects, more than any other North American species.
Don’t forget milkweed, the only plant on which monarch butterfly larvae can live. Monarchs that migrate from Mexico in the spring can only lay their eggs on its leaves; on their return journey in the fall, they may feed on its nectar, as well as other pollinators. (Asters, which bloom late, are also helpful in fueling the monarchs’ 3,000-mile journey to Mexico in the fall.)
There are three varieties of milkweed native to New Jersey: swamp milkweed, common milkweed, and butterfly weed. Common milkweed multiplies quickly so may not be the best choice for well-tended gardens; consult someone at a nursery for advice on the best type for your garden conditions. You can even grow milkweed and other native plants in pots, adds German-Gomez. They are easy to grow from seed; simply sprinkle them on the ground and press them lightly into the ground during the fall.
Milkweed may even prove a weapon against mottled lanterns, as the plant is poisonous to all but monarch butterfly larvae, which are protected from predators by eating the leaves. While native species have evolved to avoid the plant, researchers hope that the exotic mottled lantern may find it appealing and that it can serve as a natural pesticide.
Although they’re the best known, monarchs aren’t the only butterflies that need help, said German, who advocates planting a variety of native plants to support all species. For example, pipe vine is the host plant for the endangered black swallowtail butterfly, native to New Jersey.
leave some leaves
Finally, environmentalists are asking owners of not blow or rake all the leaves from their gardens in the fall. “Leave a corner or section of your garden with all the leaves; they provide crucial habitat for birds and insects, as well as native butterflies like the black swallowtail, which doesn’t migrate,” German-Gomez said. “Blowing off all the leaves decreases their chances of survival. Set the lawn mower on mulch to provide some protection for tiny critters; you will also be replenishing the soil with essential nutrients, no fertilizer is needed.
Likewise, don’t strip your garden bare once it’s in bloom, he said. Leave a few dried flowers to provide seeds for overwintering birds.
For help bringing more pollinators and natural beauty to your garden, or to volunteer, check out the website and social media for the Northeast Land Coalition.