Build Your Butterfly Know-How: A Conversation with Kris Soffa

Conservation // February 08, 2017

Trail Ambassador and lepidopterist Kris Soffa gives us a peek into what we can expect at her upcoming workshop Butterfly Basics: Building Your Own Pollinator Garden at The Cedars House on Sunday, March 5, 2017, at 2:00 p.m. More information here. Soffa is a PA Master Naturalist, a grassroots environmental activist, and currently serves on the Commission on Parks and Recreation in Philadelphia. She is also a community liaison for the 5th District Police Advisory Council and a Democratic committee person in the 21st Ward. Here are highlights from our conversation earlier this month.

What can people expect at your workshop in March?

I bring specimens to show and lots of equipment that pertains to butterflies. And I also have a 45-minute PowerPoint which goes over butterfly habitat, butterfly biology, fun facts about butterflies, and plant lists and resources on how to build a habitat for butterflies at home. I also answer questions and provide resources, like where to buy native plants. . . . People don’t realize that the caterpillar in the life cycle of the butterfly is probably more important than the nectaring source. So you need a host plant for the caterpillars.

So your workshop explains how to set up a habitat in your yard?

Yes. If you want to establish a wildlife habitat in your home, you would look at the bones of your property and see what trees you have, what species of caterpillar/butterfly that it attracts. For example, oaks attract over 500 species of insects, animals, birds, and all kinds of wildlife. . . . So you start with the trees and then you see what shrubs you have, and understory plants, and then you see what other things you can plant, and pair them with so that you have a plant for the caterpillars to eat.

So you need plants to attract butterflies, and plants for the caterpillars to eat?

That’s right. The nectar source will attract the adult butterflies, and then they will mate, because the males will be lurking waiting for the females to come, . . . then the female will oviposit, or lay her eggs, on the host plant for the caterpillars. It is easier for them if the nectar source is next to the host plant, and they’re not usually the same plant. So the butterfly will mate, lay her eggs on the host plant, and then maybe 10 days to two weeks later, the little baby caterpillars hatch and begin to eat. Their job is to eat and hide . . . because they are the most delicious, easy, fast food for birds, which is another reason I like to teach about butterflies because it is all a conservation project for the whole ecosystem. If the plants are paired, then there is a much higher rate of butterflies in your yard.

And will that also attract birds?

It will, because they need the protein. If you don’t use insecticides and herbicides, the caterpillars, a lot of them, will roll and cocoon and lie underneath the bushes and leaf litter. So we are teaching people that you don’t want to clean your landscape and scrape up every bit of matter and go to a big-box store and buy bags of sterile mulch to decorate. When you do that, you are picking up all kinds of insects that are helpful to the ecosystem. So it is very sensitive to do less in some ways.

So less is more.


Is the habitat of the Wissahickon good for butterflies?

It is, because it is not disturbed and left natural. We don’t use a lot of herbicides in the Wissahickon and we don’t do a lot of raking and disturbing the understory, which is a material area of overwintering for caterpillars and all kinds of insects.

Do we see a lot of different butterfly species in the park?

We do. The first thing you see in the spring along Forbidden Drive, or the stream, or one of the tributaries, is the spring azure, which is a beautiful, one-inch-tall iridescent, pearly, light blue butterfly. It is one of the first hatchlings in the spring. Also morning cloaks and red-spotted purples. . . . One of our biggest native butterflies, the eastern tiger swallowtail, is often seen puddling, which is the term we use for when the males come to a wet area in the gravel or mud and stick their proboscis down and sip minerals to get the strength to reproduce. . . . I like to teach people to look up. Because very often if you look up in the canopy, or above the canopy, you’ll see the big tiger swallowtails swooping and gliding along on the top where they have just hatched.

What are the best areas to see butterflies in the Wissahickon?

Houston Meadow and the Andorra Natural Area behind the Wissahickon Environmental Center. Those are two areas with a lot of nectar sources because of the sunlight.

The sunlight allows for many wildflowers to grow and bloom?

Yes, and the spring ephemerals come up in different places. The best time is in the middle of the summer because that is when the most nectar is there. Just like birds arrive in sequence, just like ephemerals bloom in the spring—first the snow drops, then the crocuses—and the migrants [birds] come back and the rabbits come out of their burrow, so do the butterflies hatch in sequence. They hatch out of their cocoons only when the temperature and the time and the tilt of the earth on its axis has made the conditions perfect for the nectar source and the host plant to be there for their species. In the summer, plants are mature enough to produce what the butterflies need. That is why I am holding this workshop early enough so people can get some native plants, get them in the ground, get them flowering in time.

Why did you choose to do a butterfly workshop?

The reason I do this is to teach conservation and appreciation of the natural world. To teach people to support and love the land and the ecosystems. Butterflies are kind of an entry insect because a lot of people like them and they’re fascinated by them because they have such an interesting life cycle. They have so many different forms. And children know them. They are an easily recognized insect. It’s a way of getting people involved. And then they learn: “The things that I plant, the things that I cut down, and the choices that I make on my property, even if it’s in a window box, can affect a lot of things.” Someone with a window box can build a butterfly habitat and would probably be delighted to see what happens. Or if you have a several-acre property, you also have opportunities to make the habitat and cause a change in your world. So it gives people a choice in how they proceed and what they do.

There has been habitat restoration projects in Andorra and Houston Meadows beginning in 2009. Have you seen an increase in butterflies in these two meadows?

I didn’t do a count when they first started there, so I can’t say that. . . . But I can say that at the rain garden at the upper parking lot A [in Andorra], I’ve seen a big increase.

So are rain gardens generally really good for butterflies?

It’s wonderful. It serves every purpose. It captures the rainwater runoff, drops the silt, and nourishes the plants, and then all you need to do is make a resource list of what plants grow there and check your light and your soil. . . . I really stress doing research and making a plan and starting with what you have.

Can that be daunting for some people?

It can be. That is why I tell people to start simple by evaluating what you have. Do you have a place to grow something? Do you have sun, or do you have shade? What kind of space do you have? What is existing on your property? Do you have a lot of trees? What trees and shrubs and plants are already there? Butterflies use the trees. A dogwood, cherry, or oak—these are all fabulous trees for butterflies.

It seems most people focus on the pollinators, and not the trees.

Yes. It’s an easy list to get—a nectar source—the big flowers. But a lot goes on the rest of the year. Like creating the habitat and not cleaning all the leaf litter, cutting down, or burning. A lot of people clean up their fall garden, cutting and removing things which have caterpillar chrysalides on them.

It sounds like what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.

The more native plants you have, the less work you do. Also we’re getting a way from the mown grass and mulching—a very formal look. I visited the Kew Gardens in England and basically saw only the cabbage white, which is the most common butterfly in the world. I think the reason is the English pattern of the shortly mown grass—everything is mulched, everything is designed—very formal. In a wilder setting, there’s more lush variations of all kinds of things, starting with bugs.

I assume native plants work better than invasives for attracting butterflies.

And that is what we are urging, and what FOW is doing. They cut down the foreign invasives in the park and we encourage people to plant natives because if a bird eats the fruit, and drops the seed somewhere else, they’re not spreading the problem, which is why, in the Wissahickon, we see lots of big drifts of invasives that have come from the gardens. In all fairness, that stuff was planted before we knew what to do.

Is your workshop for adults only?

This is fun for kids too. I think kids are interested in butterflies because they are beautiful and interesting. I teach how to raise butterflies, which is just a simple matter of finding a chrysalis and getting enough host food. I like to tell the story of my friend that grows a big herb garden and is very proud of the fact that she gets to go into her garden and snap off a handful of parsley and just pop it into her mouth. I have warned her that if she turned over the leaves, she would probably see the small dots that are black swallowtail eggs.

If you plant a little herb garden with any of the celeries—fennel, dill, carrots, parsley—it will attract a female black swallowtail who will probably lay some eggs in there. And then you can easily snip that and put it in a jar with a lid with holes. You put a chopstick in there for the chrysalis to attach to, and you can watch it grow. This is something fun for children to do. And for teachers too. That was my introduction to the natural world. I was always a wilderness nature girl, but I started learning about butterflies and collecting them when I was in fourth grade. I’m a life-long collector.

Join Kris Soffa at her workshop on March 5 and learn more about butterflies and how to create a habitat for them in your own yard or window box! Register here.

by Denise Larrabee, FOW Editor/Writer