Betting on Butterflies
Urban development in Hawaii has left native butterflies with dwindling habitat, but on Molokai, butterflies will soon enjoy a buffet in downtown Kaunakakai. A specially-designed garden in front of the Molokai Public Library, created last week through volunteer community efforts, offers butterfly flower favorites, beauty for passersby and an agriculture education for keiki.
“Just like bees, butterflies are important for agriculture because they’re pollinators and a lot of people don’t know that,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture Molokai inspector Chevy Levasa, who spearheaded the project in her free time. “There is a real problem on Oahu and… Maui because humans are building condos and taking over [butterflies’] habitat. Fortunately Molokai stays Molokai…this is an ideal place for them.”
According to the Butterfly Society of Hawaii, there are 17 native Hawaiian butterfly species, and many admirers have noticed fewer butterflies overall in the last 50 years. Levasa said the plants she selected for Molokai’s garden could attract species such as the Long-Tailed Blue, the Monarch and others. Those plants include marigold, milkweed, rattlepod and crownflower to appeal to various butterfly species and promote their life cycles. Leaves will be eaten by the caterpillars, while the flowers will be enjoyed once the insects transform to butterflies. In the future, Levasa said the plants may be replaced with more native species.
Construction of the butterfly-shaped garden bed began two weeks ago and continued until Saturday morning, when keiki and volunteers enjoyed the last stage of the project — planting seedlings.
Saturday’s event began with a pule and oli written by DJ Pelekai as the first butterfly — or pulelehua — floated over the area, christening the event. Everyone broke into small groups, each planting a separate flower species for each section of the garden. Live music softly played and children painted paper butterflies made by palm weaver Terry Hill.
“I liked planting the plants and painting the [paper] butterflies!” said eight-year-old participant Mahealani Bright-Wilhelm.
After planting, covering the surrounding area in damp newspaper then rock, the garden received its final touches of wooden houses painted by the Molokai Youth Center, which will further attract and provide a refuge for butterflies. The Molokai Arts Center has also agreed to provide ceramic tiles, painted by keiki, which will line the garden, according to Levasa.
Over the course of the garden project, Levasa said more than 50 community members and 12 organizations including Ace Hardware, Pizza Café, Monsanto and Mycogen donated their time and resources. The event was also a kick-start for Levasa’s Aggie Girls, a group of women working in state and government agriculture jobs who wish to give back to their communities.
“Pollinators… like butterflies and bees are so important, especially from my aspect of farming,” said volunteer Jamie Ronzello, owner of Barking Deer Farm. “So when Chevy came to me [for help]…I thought, ‘what idea could possibly be better than to get kids involved in understanding the importance of pollinators in our community?’”
Levasa said she’s always felt an affinity towards butterflies, but after becoming a member of the Butterfly Society of Hawaii and taking a tour of the butterfly garden at Oahu’s Foster Botanical Garden, she was inspired to make one for the Molokai community.
“I wanted something to be sustainable, not just a one-time planting,” said Levasa. “I wanted it to be a community-based garden that can be used for education and different projects as it gets older.”
In the future, Levasa said she visualizes building connections between groups such as the Molokai Youth Center, Friends of the Library and the Molokai Boy Scouts, and allow them to decide how they want their garden to flourish. But until then, she said she’ll continue taking care of the garden until she can “pass the torch.”
“To everybody involved, thank you so much because it couldn’t have happened without you,” said Levasa. “It’s not mine, it’s Molokai’s.”