Around this time a year ago, I observed for the first time a plain tiger (Danaus chrysippus), also known as the African queen, flying majestically from wildflower to wildflower. This butterfly, the same butterfly depicted on our wonderful guidebook Butterfly Gardening in Lebanon, has since become the distinctive emblem of our butterfly garden and all the hard efforts we’ve exerted to make this garden a sustainable one. You don’t really appreciate nature conservation unless you’ve lived out in nature and seen plants and animals first hand, enjoying their presence and blending them into your daily routine. And this is what I’ve been doing for the past year, a chance for me, a lepidopterist and field biologist, to live out among the local wildlife, the plants and animals that call Lebanon their home, especially the butterflies, my colourful daytime companions.
From a pinewood cabin, which has become my makeshift office, library, and studio, as well as a ticket hut, I’ve been spending my time studying, painting, compiling, gardening, and managing and directing the butterfly garden. The year has been long and the tasks have been arduous and sometimes overwhelming since the last time we touched base (in 2018’s annual report), yet the outcomes are definitely promising and worthwhile. We went from an almond grove to a sustainable butterfly garden and international park with a system of nature trails, nearly 270 trees, more than 160 species of native plants, a greenhouse, nursery, and environmental centre, within one year. The butterfly garden now supports a higher diversity of native plants, insects, and other animals since we first started. And the butterflies keep coming, I’ve recorded a number of species from last summer.
The mild autumn months of 2018 were spent planting wildflowers along the trails and harvesting wild seeds, as part of our Lebanon Native Plant Seedbank (LNPS). Thousands of seeds, from hundreds of native plant species, were collected September through December, to be sown in the winter. In addition, forty-five native trees and shrubs were planted throughout the garden. To meet the needs of our growing community of wild plants, a water irrigation system was installed in November, and consisted of more than 2,100 metres of driplines and regular hoses. Furthermore, a large selection of the necessary gardening tools and equipment were bought and a warehouse with a workbench was constructed inside the greenhouse.
Winter was especially harsh and stormy with hurricane after hurricane reaching Lebanon in relentless waves. High winds and snowstorms caused a lot of damage across the country. But fortunately, here in the Bekaa, we were spared, you might say a combination of good luck and quick action. We had installed a snow plan, consisting of indoor greenhouse heaters and a long water hose that was placed midline along the roof, which was turned on to melt the ice and snow. I vividly remember throwing on the raincoat and rushing out to the greenhouse at the first sight of snow, sometimes in the middle of the night. Unlike rain, snow would place a lot of weight on the greenhouse ceiling, causing it to collapse if no action was taken soon enough.
The seeds we harvested in autumn were sown in the greenhouse during the winter, the first batch of some fifty thousand seeds in December and the second batch, of a similar number, in February. Also, the first of a series of ecologic training sessions was given in December, to instruct Syrian migrants and refugees the proper ways of collecting and harvesting wild plants. Later on, in January and February, we pruned all the fruit trees and planted a living fence. In March, we started pricking out young plants into the garden to acclimate them to early spring weather.
Besides the winter hurricanes, what made year 2019 extraordinary was the phenomenal butterfly migration we all witnessed in March. Billions of butterflies migrated through Lebanon, on their seasonal migration route between tropical Africa and temperate Europe. Heavy rains had caused an increase in the spring populations of these butterflies, and pressures to obtain food and avoid competition resulted in the subsequent large-scale migration. The region hasn’t experienced this in more than a century.
April was a month of springtime planting, trailwork, and cleaning. The butterfly garden was opened in mid-April as construction had started on the environmental centre. We also had the pleasure to host an international volunteer, who accompanied our gardening team to nearby hima locations where we collected hundreds, if not thousands, of native wild plants in mid- to late spring and relocated them to the garden. The volunteer also helped paint our garden welcome mural, which had all the elements of a dazzling springtime butterfly garden, i.e. butterflies, bees, wildflowers, sunshine, blue skies, and a rainbow.
Monitoring of butterflies and other insects, as well as reptiles, birds, and plants started in June and is an ongoing project, part of a long-term study on both slopes of the Shouf Biosphere Reserve involving a number of local and international institutions and volunteers. The butterfly aspect of the monitoring will later evolve into a nationwide effort encompassing all 25 hima locations as well as the 20 or so established nature reserves. An atlas of national butterfly distributions and the effects of climate, habitat, phytogeography, land use and management, and environmental threats and pressures will eventually be published, so as to guide butterfly conservationists and draw up national management guidelines.
Simultaneously, I’ve been preoccupied with my website, LEPIDOPTERA LIBANOTICA/Butterflies and Moths of Lebanon (http://butterflies.spnl.org), the first authoritative website on the lepidopterans of Lebanon and the Levant. Since November of 2018, I’ve een regularly uploading material, including descriptive and fully-illustrated pages on all 165 species of butterflies, a complete checklist of the thousand or so species of Levantine moths, as well as individual pages on the sphinx moths and zygaenids, the fifty or so species of dragonflies and damselflies, in addition to other representative Lebanese entomofauna. Not only functioning as a comprehensive and detailed online pictorial guide, the website also hosts the Lebanon Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (LBMS), the country’s butterfly monitoring program, with volunteer training materials, resources, and online tools that make monitoring relatively simple and more efficient. A built-in blog, the DANAUS Butterfly Blog, features daily posts on garden stories, articles, news, upcoming events, and butterfly sightings that, along with the online guide and monitoring toolkit, serve to help conserve the nation’s butterflies through education, awareness, and public access to resources and scientific material. Furthermore, A Butterfly Beauty, a colourful children’s storybook on metamorphosis will be published this September, as will Butterflies and Wildflowers of Lebanon Colouring Book, A Pocket Guide to Lebanese Medicinal Plants, Wood Fairies and Flying Wildflowers (a calendar), and a number of posters and brochures that will also help stock up our Homat al Hima Gift Shop. The long-awaited herpetologist’s lexicon, A Guide to the Amphibians of Lebanon and the Middle East, will be published this autumn.
In August, we built a summer wildflower nursery, an outdoor outlet of the gift shop, next to the greenhouse, where we will sell living plants, organic products, and garden décor. Visitors will pick up a butterfly plant or a nectar feeder on their way through the garden and perhaps start their own garden back home. Money raised from this nursery, as well as from admissions and the gift shop, will help fund garden projects and support local employees, Syrian refugees, and their families. We’re also currently engineering a walk-through botanical garden in the greenhouse that will come replete with native trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, and blooms, as well as a lepidopterarium exhibit display, water fountains, a pond, and soothing nature sounds. Construction on the environmental centre will be completed by mid-September and the international park will open soon after that, with a butterfly garden, herpetarium, and aviary.
A complete green landscape, the butterfly garden will incorporate a number of environment-friendly elements, such as bioswales, mounds, stone piles, stumperies, living hedges, grass meadows, arbours, vertical planters, and wildlife ponds, that provide plenty of habitats for pollinators and beneficial insects and other animals. This garden, a type of wildlife garden, is sustainable and conservation-oriented, and will encourage the wise and efficient use of water and space, promoting such activities as recycling, composting, rainwater harvesting, haymaking, beekeeping, permaculture, and aesthetics. Gardening is entirely organic, without the use of agrochemicals, such as pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers. Moreover, positive environmental activities such as bird watching and butterfly watching, rather than irresponsible hunting and netting, will be sponsored and facilitated by a full line of educational programs and training workshops.
I can’t stress more on the ecological importance of butterflies, and this is what I’ve been trying to get across through websites, books, and printed material. These colourful, benign, innocent creatures, that many people simply overlook, are highly important pollinators and bioindicators. Without butterflies, many of the wildflowers whose colours and aromas we have come to appreciate won’t propagate from year to year. Furthermore, butterflies, when monitored and studied, give valuable clues as to the health of the environment and the stressors and pressures that act upon it. Educating farmers and the younger generation on the importance of butterflies and how to garden or farm organically and responsibly, will help solve many of the current problems associated with butterfly conservation and potentially reverse a number of the threats that butterflies are facing, such as habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation, deforestation, agricultural intensification, and the use of agrochemicals, as well as urbanisation, overgrazing, and the overcollecting of medicinal plants, many of which are also host plants. Therefore, establishing a garden anywhere, near a residence, business, institution, or park, along the lines of butterfly gardening, and when done on a large-scale by many people throughout the country, will have tremendous benefits, providing butterflies with the food and resources they need to survive. This is a major objective of our butterfly garden, educating people on the importance of butterflies and having them simulate our success as an early jumpstart to conserve the nation’s butterflies and biodiversity heritage for generations to come. Conserving Lebanon’s butterflies will help conserve the world’s butterflies. Because without butterflies, there are no plants, and without plants, there would be no environment, and we, and this earth, simply can’t afford to lose them.
Husein Ali Zorkot
HHI Park Butterfly Garden & Pavilion
Manager & Director/Lepidopterist