by Husein Ali Zorkot
A large part of this year was spent not only wildlife gardening and green landscaping, but also taking precautions. Forest fires, political instability, economic collapse, and a global health crisis had racked the country simultaneously. Social distancing was seemingly the only way to thwart an epidemic viral disease from spreading. Freedom of movement became increasingly limited and the Lebanese currency plummeted, making everyday life considerably more difficult. The first few months of 2020, Lebanon’s streets resembled a ghost town, and there was growing anger, fear, and frustration. People were afraid for their lives, their livelihoods, their families, and their future. There was uncertainty, and many people were worried how they would procure their basic needs. Yet, Lebanese, accustomed to turmoil, war, and upheaval, proved themselves time and time again a resilient people. They were patient and each person had their own way of handling the crisis.
However, I was far from all that, stationed outdoors in a pinewood cabin in the dim, cold, and windy Bekaa countryside, where my time was better spent reading, writing, compiling, painting, managing the butterfly garden, and maintaining social distance. I made my own food, cooked potatoes, sweet potatoes, and onions, and ate a meagre diet consisting of bread, thyme, olives, almonds, dates, fig marmalade, and grape molasses. What it took was some survivalism and common sense to get me through the day.
The butterfly garden has come a long way since our last annual report, despite the problems the country is currently facing. Although the nearby country club closed down temporarily this year, and the tourism sector has experienced major setbacks, our environmental activities are proceeding as planned, with a focus on landscaping projects in preparation for next year. The garden was winterised in January, and plants were grown from seed in the greenhouse, to be pricked out later in spring. In February, we planted hundreds of trees and shrubs throughout the garden, and a living fence of cypress trees along the eastern hedge, to serve as a windbreak. We also planted garden flowers and roses next to the hima administrative building.
In March, we constructed a tree nursery and planted thousands of wild pine and oak seeds. These young trees will later be supplied to local municipalities to help with nationwide reforestation efforts. We also plan on enlarging this nursery to include many species of native herbs, medicinal and aromatic plants, and butterfly, as well as bee, plants, which we will sell next year to visitors, so that they might start their own butterfly gardens at home, an important first step in butterfly conservation and a primary objective of our long-term sustainable project.
April and May were months of social distancing and the country was practically shut down and preparing for a worst-case scenario. We avoided the atmosphere of uncertainty so pervasive at that time, by turning to gardening and the outdoors. Throughout April, I was preoccupied with springtime cleaning, garden maintenance, and butterfly watching. In May, I paved the “Honeybee Trail,” a 70-metre stretch of trail that winds its way through the garden. Beekeeping units will later be placed next to this trail. Our butterfly garden is bee-friendly and supports wild bee populations, including the honeybee (Apis mellifera), bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), carpenter bee (Xylocopa violacea), as well as a number of other valuable pollinator species. With wild bee populations increasingly threatened and dwindling around the world, a beekeeping program is needed to educate people on the importance of these animals. Plainly stated, without animals like bees and butterflies, there would be no plants, and thus no food. Wild edible plants would not propagate from year to year. With the world going through health crises, economic problems, and climate change, and people on the verge of hunger, these animals and their roles as pollinators become more important.
We also turned to farming. A potager of kitchen greens was established nearby to produce emergency food that will be distributed to the poor and elderly. My Syrian gardener and his family were instructed to help with hima farming efforts. They worked long hours in the field to ensure a good yield this year. Hima farming provides a standard that, when practiced around the country, will alleviate many of the problems encountered by Lebanese people. Organic farming, like wildlife gardening, is a responsible, sustainable, and ecofriendly activity. No pesticides and herbicides are used, and thus ecosystems are not disturbed. Beneficial insects outweigh deleterious ones, and the ecologic balance is preserved. There is less risk of pollution to the environment, and less risk of invasive species. When farming equipment and materials become more expensive, and when hunger becomes a possibility, organic farming, specifically hima farming, might be the way to go.
Environmental activities keep arising, and are enjoyable. We are now constructing a large ecofriendly wildlife pond that will attract frogs, toads, salamanders, water turtles, and other animals. This pond, an outdoor herpetarium, is built on a slope and engineered to fill up with water each winter and spring. Rather than caging animals in indoor terrariums, animals will have the freedom to move and maintain their breeding and developmental cycles out in the wilderness. Furthermore, a picnicking space for outdoor events and buffets will be constructed in a specific location within the garden that will cause minimal damage to the environment, an example of green landscaping. Educational programs, including butterfly gardening lectures and tours will also be developed soon. Such activities will boost ecotourism and attract people to our garden. We are also preparing the wildflower seed harvest for 2020, as part of the Lebanon Native Plant Seedbank (LNPS). Seeds of native wild plant species will be collected ecologically from hima locations throughout the country several days per week, July through November. Butterfly Plants, Bee Plants, Medicinal Plants, Pollinator Mix, Meadow Wildflower Mix… These seeds will then be processed and sold in envelopes in the gift shop next year.
The time away from society also gave me a rare chance to better study the butterfly garden, its ecosystems and wildlife communities, particularly the pollinators. One doesn’t appreciate the diversity of wildlife within a given area unless they study it, especially at night, when the place seemingly comes alive. The garden supports 11 mammal species, including shrews, hedgehogs, mole rats, voles, wood mice, dormice, stone martens, wild cats, foxes, and jackals, the last of which are highly vocal and observed in packs. The avifauna is represented by around 25 bird species, some winter visitors and some resident, not to mention the numerous birds that pass through on the migratory flyway. The melodies and notes of a number of characteristic species could be heard throughout the year, especially bramblings, chaffinches, redstarts, serins, great tits, and robins in wintertime, blackbirds and goldfinches in early spring, and flycatchers, wheatears, and shrikes in early summer. A number of warbler species made their presence known year round. Bee-eaters could be heard and seen flying around and perching down on trees in flocks in spring and autumn. Swallows heralded early spring mornings while swifts could be observed flying erratically just before dusk. An occasional kestrel or hooded crow would pass through the garden. The herpetofauna includes 11 species of reptiles and several amphibians, such as green toads, observed in large numbers after dusk, and fire salamanders, seen following rainshowers making their way to ponds where they breed. Insects are represented by hundreds of species of beetles, bugs, butterflies, moths, bees, ants, grasshoppers, crickets, locusts, mantids, earwigs, craneflies, and dragonflies. Many of these insects, particularly butterflies, moths, and bees, are beneficial and important pollinators. Furthermore, a butterfly species, the brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni), was recorded for the first time this summer in our garden. The garden is also home to a huge number of spiders, centipedes, millipedes, pill-millipedes, and pillbugs. Garden snails are highly ubiquitous and associated with rainy spring mornings and evenings. And this is only the animal life above ground. Below the surface, the soil is teeming with earthworms and other animals. The plant life is no less diverse. The garden supports more than 160 species of native wildflowers, herbs, vines, and grasses, around 29 species of trees, and several species of ferns, mosses, and mushrooms. Many of these species are melliferous and provide food for butterflies, moths, and bees throughout the season. They also host larval development and provide shelter during windy and overcast days, and in cold weather. More details might be gained from my website, LEPIDOPTERA LIBANOTICA/Butterflies and Moths of Lebanon (http://butterflies.spnl.org).
The book, A Pictorial Guide to the Butterflies of Lebanon, will be published this summer. This is the first photographic butterfly guide of its kind, with short, concise descriptions of 150 Lebanese species and colour drawings of host plants. With the recent discovery of an invasive butterfly near Tripoli in the north of the country, the publication of this book becomes more urgent. Luthrodes pandava, a South Asian species that breeds on sago palms, might pose a problem for local Chilades butterflies, with which it probably shares the same ecological niches. This invasive species, originating from nurseries selling tropical plants for local gardens, could potentially compete with Chilades for local nectar sources. Butterfly gardening, a sustainable type of wildlife gardening which employs native plants, and thus encourages native butterflies, minimises the risk of invasive species. This is what my books, website, and educational programs are trying to get across. I am also compiling the books A Guide to the Reptiles of Lebanon and the Levant, A Guide to the Moths of Lebanon, and A Photographic Guide to the Insects and Spiders of Lebanon.
Getting ready to go and harvest seeds, I’m taking the needed precautions. With no end in sight yet to the global health problem, social distancing seems to be the right course of action. But one byproduct of social distancing might be something positive to the environment. How we have been made far from one another through social distancing, to plants, animals, and the earth, we have been brought closer.