Let’s move on from nuclear to nature. The area to your right is called “Butterfly Hill.” Butterflies and other insects may be small, but they play a critical role on the prairie. They consume vegetation, disperse seeds, move soil, and provide food for other animals. But one of the most important roles is pollination.
Pollination, or the exchange of pollen between flowers, allows seed and fruit production, continuing the plant life cycle.
Bees, flies, beetles, butterflies, ants and moths are some of the most common insects that pollinate on the refuge.
As these “pollinators” visit flowers for nectar, they pick up pollen and help transfer it to different flowers. Some plants require a specific insect species to pollinate them, such as certain orchids and sphynx moths. Others, called generalists, are easily pollinated by many kinds of insects. Conversely, some pollinators require pollen from specific types of plants, while others can feed on a broad array of flowers.
But pollination isn’t the only unique relationship. Some insects require a specific host plant to survive. Monarch caterpillars and milkweeds are a good example: the caterpillars must eat milkweed to survive to become adult butterflies.
The regal fritillary butterfly, a declining prairie species reintroduced on the refuge, has a similar relationship with prairie violets. Regal fritillaries lay their eggs near violet plants. The larvae overwinter in the duff layer and then emerge in the spring, searching for violets to eat. In 2001, regal fritillaries were brought here from nearby natural areas and placed in cages around prairie violet plants. Thanks to careful habitat management, the species has made a comeback on the refuge.
See how much insects do? Without them, the prairie wouldn't look the same!
To continue the tour, turn right onto our paved entry road, then take the first left for the oak savanna.