Monarchs and Milkweed: A Providence Tale

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A few years ago, some Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca L.) sprouted in my front yard. It can be an aggressive plant (hence the weed moniker), but nonetheless, I let it take over my front yard because it is the exclusive host plant for Monarchs. The butterflies will only lay their eggs on this particular plant as they migrate north from Mexico each spring and summer. When the caterpillars hatch, they eat the milkweed leaves, which are toxic to just about every other insect.

In early June this year, I spotted two caterpillars on the milkweed in my yard. Within a couple of days, one had fallen victim to a spider. It turns out, less than 10 percent survive in the wild so, given how much this species is struggling due to loss of habitat, pesticides, and climate change, I decided to intervene. I took in the remaining caterpillar and made it a home in a makeshift terrarium. A couple of weeks later, the caterpillar emerged from its chrysalis, and I sent it on its way.

My postage stamp yard is on a busy road and not in the “greenest” part of the City (it’s not on the East Side). But my little science experiment goes to show that even a small act can have an impact. We of course need larger changes as well, and fortunately, local leaders in Providence are taking action to help ensure green spaces all over the City are as natural and healthy as possible. Launched by the City’s Office of Sustainability in 2021 with a small grant from Healthy Babies Bright Future, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing neurotoxin exposure in babies, PesticideFreePVD aims to help residents move away from yard chemicals that are hazardous to humans and nature, especially pollinators like bees and butterflies, which are critical for sustaining our food production.

Photo: Leah Bamberger

PesticideFreePVD provides practical tips and resources in Spanish and English for residents to manage their outdoor spaces in more sustainable ways. Simple steps like leaving lawn clippings after mowing (it provides nutrients and reduces the need for synthetic fertilizer) and letting some of autumn’s leaves stick around through the winter (they provide important habitat for beneficial insects) are a huge help to Mother Nature. In my experience, these little steps have led to a much lower maintenance yard. I no longer worry about the aphids destroying my plants because there are plenty of ladybugs around to eat them!

The Office of Sustainability learned many of these tips from the City’s own Parks Department. In fact, the Parks Department does not use any pesticides or synthetic fertilizers as a regular part of its management plan for parks and playgrounds in the City. In the Roger Williams Botanical Center, for example, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques have been implemented with great success and the Botanical Center uses goats to remove invasive plants from park grounds.

You may be wondering, why doesn’t the City just ban these toxic chemicals that are harming us and our environment? Well, regulating lawn chemicals falls under the state’s responsibility, so the City doesn’t have the authority to pass laws about them. Fortunately, last year the Governor signed a bill limiting the use of neonicotinoids, which is a class of pesticide that is particularly harmful to pollinators, like monarchs. These pesticides have already been banned or restricted in the European Union, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, and Maryland. The legislation goes into effect January 1st of 2024, and it restricts the use of neonicotinoids in the outdoors, allowing only certified applicators to purchase or use them.

There will still be other harmful lawn and garden products allowed on the market, of course. For example, lawn fertilizers, which are commonly over-applied, run off into our waterways. This results in pollution, toxic blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) blooms, and aquatic “dead zones” in coastal areas. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) monitors waterbodies in the state for these blooms, and this year it has reported 13 advisories, including the ponds in Roger Williams Park. According to the RI Department of Health, swallowing even a small amount of contaminated water can cause gastrointestinal symptoms, and drinking large amounts may cause liver or neurological damage. Dogs, in particular, can get extremely ill and even die from ingesting cyanobacteria algae.

Like so many of our societal and environmental challenges, neither individual action, nor policy can solve the problem alone. We need action at all levels. The City and State has taken some good steps, but it is still too easy for consumers to get their hands on toxic chemicals, like RoundUp, or mosquito yard treatments that are advertised as “all natural” or organic, despite their toxicity (and not to mention questionable effectiveness). We need more education and transparency for consumers about the hazards to people and the environment, and we need more large property owners to follow the lead of Providence Parks Department and plant native species and adopt Integrated Pest Management approaches.

Photo: Leah Bamberger

As we work towards larger system changes, I found joy and hope this summer tending to the native plants in my garden without chemicals and watching my rescued caterpillar transform into a butterfly. This little Monarch experiment was a reminder of our connection to the natural world and the impact we have on it. When we put a little thought into making our tiny urban plots hospitable to more than a grassy lawn, we can support the fragile, struggling ecosystem that sustains us and so many other beings.

Leah Bamberger served as the City’s Director of Sustainability from 2015 to 2021. She now is the Executive Director of Northeastern University’s Climate Justice and Sustainability Hub.