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Butterflies in December

December 17, 2014

In the last weeks I have prepared the garden for the cold days, though temperatures are still mild and have never fallen to freezing point, far from. This will again be the hottest year in human (meteorological) history.

Last week it was sunny and it felt like spring, but today it is overcast and in the night it has rained. I have sorted and rearranged all the paraphernalia in the garden. The garden tools are in the two tool sheds (where they would belong in any case in an orderly household), the plant pots and boxes with chard, marigold, and other plants, which would be destroyed by cold temperatures, are in the greenhouses.

Last year a few marigold flowers indeed survived the winter and in spring they started growing again and blooming as if nothing had happened. There is also a strawberry area in the big greenhouse, and hopefully in March the strawberries will wake up again to present their delicious fruits as early as in April. In spring this year at least it worked that way.

When I was cleaning up the garden I found a wonderful butterfly hiding between two storage boxes. It was not a good place to hide, because wind gusts occasionally topple the boxes. I shooed the butterfly into a flower pot and brought it to the small greenhouse. In the greenhouses it is always a few degrees warmer than outside, especially in the night.

Normally I try not to interfere with nature and leave the animals alone but in this case I thought, that the butterfly would enjoy a few days more of the comparatively warm environment in the greenhouse. The butterfly was not very impressed though, it only flapped its wings slowly and I had the impression, that it was near the end of its live.

When I entered the greenhouse the next day, to carry in a few more plant pots, the butterfly was on another place high up on the roof and it had folded its wings. I touched it softly and it didn’t move. “Now I know how butterflies die,” I thought.

peacock butterfly 1

But the following day the butterfly was on another place and it had opened its wings again. It was obviously still flying around when nobody was watching. I don’t know if it was sensible to carry it into the greenhouse, but outside it would probably be dead now. There are for sure spiders in the greenhouse which could be a threat, yet, as they remain on the ground (gorging on woodlice) and are impaired by the cold as well they are not an immediate danger.

I also don’t know if the butterfly finds enough to drink there (butterflies don’t eat, they only drink). There are plenty of plants in the greenhouse, but butterflies are choosy and I don’t know if the plants are of the right kind. I have put two cups with water near the butterfly and there are some late broccoli plants blooming. I let them bloom because at this time of the year they don’t anymore develop to a size which makes it worth harvesting them. The broccoli blooms are small and pastel yellow — they are very pretty. Could it be that they will contain flower nectar? A few marigold blooms are also still open.

A friend whom I told the story advised me to look for more information because some butterfly species hibernate in dark places. On the web I found out in a few seconds that my little friend was a peacock butterfly who could indeed survive the winter. As I looked at the butterfly more carefully I discovered its two long antennas with the little yellow knobs at the end, which contain the senses. Butterflies though have most of their senses on their six feet, which is very practical.

peacock butterfly 2

This story goes on now for one week. In the meantime I have put more flower pots with all kind of plants into the greenhouse and I also furnished it with small empty flower pots which I put onto a shelf and on top of the posts at which in summer the tomatoes are tied up. This would be the dark places where my butterfly friend could go to sleep across the cold month. At the moment though it is still awake, every time when I visit the greenhouse it is on another place, slowly flapping its wings.

Was it right to bring my little fellow animal into the greenhouse or should I have left it on its own? Does it have really a better chance of survival there? For me it was undoubtedly right because I’m excited every time I see it. The butterfly has become my friend — it has become close to my heart. As a caterpillar it would have decimated the plants in the garden and I would have squashed it if I would have seen it.

Or maybe not.

Peacock caterpillars specialize on stinging nettle which are plentiful here. Stinging nettle make an excellent fertilizer and also can be used for tea but I nevertheless don’t mind if they are somewhat reduced.

All at all the garden is developing as planned with an exceptional — and often confusing — diversity of plants. I have learned not to interfere too much into the natural flow of things and just let the countless plants and animals have their way. The caterpillars, slugs, snails, beetles, and other pests may ruin some leaves and fruits, but plenty of goodies still remain to be harvested.

Most important for a healthy garden is the soil, as I learned very soon. Humus stores plenty of CO2 (soil carbon sequestration) and the humus layer in the garden is growing fast because I’m composting or grinding all organic waste (leaves, weeds, pruned branches, kitchen leftovers). Some material is also applied directly as mulch, the ants, earth worms, beetles, together with microbes over time convert all organic material into humus.

In addition to that I fetched a lot of moss from the forest, which grows nicely in the shadowy parts of the garden or below the more intrusive herbs (mint, lemon balm). There are a dozen varieties of moss in the garden, together with sedum and glover this is the first level of vegetation. The second level are strawberries, herbs, vegetables, flowers, the third level are berry bushes and shrubs, the fourth level are fruit trees.

The soil by the way should not be disturbed too much to let the earth worms, ants, and beetles do their job. This is called “no-till gardening and farming,” propagated by Masanobu Fukuoka already in the 1970s. No digging, tilling, plowing, let nature have its way — common sense alone should lead to this conclusion. Common sense and modern industrial agriculture apparently don’t mix.

peacock butterfly 6

Back to my butterfly story.

Butterflies in December were unheard of until now and this is not the only exceptional holdout I encountered this autumn. Last week during one of the daily forest walks with the cat family I discovered a glow worm sitting in the low shrubs on the ground. As I make the forest walks at the moment late in the evening it was completely dark and the glow worm was easily to see. Glow worms despite their name are not worms but beetles or flies and to find an active one at this time is a clear indication that things are heating up.

The vegetation in the forest has considerably changed in the last years but until now the bio system is intact and seems to be balanced, The biodiversity of the forest allows it to adapt to the rapidly changing climate. Not every system will cope that well and one can expect that man made monoculture systems (fields, plantations, orchards) will be hit hard, with all the implied negative consequences for food security.

Industrial agriculture was never a good idea, even an extensive (and widely published) UN study in December 2013 came to the conclusion, that small scale organic farms are more efficient in the long term than the endless planes of corn and soy fields. (UNCTAD: “Trade and Environment Review 2013)

The endless fields will dry up and turn to dessert eventually, as it happens now in Brazil, California, North China, and the Middle East (especially Iran, Syria, Iraq). But as long as forests persist, nature will not be defeated and step by step take back and cultivate the barren lands on its own. One can only hope that humans don’t clearcut the remaining forests of the world in their limitless stupidity.

Even if that comes to pass, the apocalyptic scenarios of end-time prophets and futurologists may be greatly exaggerated. Nature is more robust and adaptive than we can imagine and in the end humans will lose their war against nature. They may gain some temporary victories now but nature only retreats and waits till humans in their hubris and senseless aggression have exterminated themselves.

What are the few hundred thousands of years, during which the homo sapiens has caused death and devastation, against the history of the plant? The reign of homo sapiens will be a negligible blip, a tiny episode, nothing more.

Radioactivity will decrease, man made synthetic substances will fall apart, a new biological balance will be established and new life-forms will populate the planet. In a few hundred thousand years the human-caused destruction will not be visible anymore.

With this positive note I want to close the blog post, Maybe I could ease eventual worries of my readers and lift their spirits. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” as the magnificent Bobby McFerrin so pointedly sings. Don’t lose your humor, don’t let life break you, enjoy every moment, be a butterfly.

Peacock Butterfly (Inachis io) basking in the sun

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