In the coming months, Mayfair’s residents and visitors can expect to see thousands of butterflies roaming throughout the neighborhood.
After learning that the iconic North American black-and-orange insect is on the verge of disappearing for good, a coalition of organizations within the neighborhood decided to launch the Monarch Butterfly Project.
“The monarch is an endangered species, and the way to help save the monarch is to plant milkweed,” Mike Scotese, founder of the project and president of the Mayfair Business Association, said. “But if there is no milkweed, which is the only plant where they lay their eggs on, there are no next generation of monarchs.”
A study recently published in the journal Scientific Reports found the monarch butterfly is at risk of quasi-extinction, in which the population gets too low to rebound and reproduce. Researchers estimated that the current population of monarchs need to increase by at least 500 percent nationwide in order to reduce that risk.
Now, the Mayfair community has united in effort to increase the monarch population by cultivating milkweed plants throughout the neighborhood before releasing thousands of ready-to-breed butterflies.
The vibrant Danaus plexippus are coming from Butterfly Rainforest Pavilion, an 8,000-square-foot warehouse extension of Philadelphia’s only all-bug museum, the Insectarium Institute. Founded by Mayfair resident Steve Kanya in 1992, it is currently undergoing construction and expects to receive its first shipment of approximately 8,500 butterflies from rural Pennsylvania and Florida in mid-June. The project’s goal for its first butterfly release date is June 15.
Kanya first introduced the idea of saving the monarchs during a monthly Mayfair Business Association meeting in early 2015 when sharing plans of his upcoming butterfly pavilion. Scotese immediately took a liking to the idea and decided to jumpstart the Monarch Butterfly Project.
“It’s a really great group of people, business people, some community leaders,” Kanya said. “A woman from John Taylor’s office is involved, her name is Mia Hylan. Everybody likes the idea to help save the monarchs.”
Hylan, of state Rep. John Taylor’s office, board member of the business association and Mayfair resident, believes the project will also help unify the neighborhood. She’s been working on expanding funds to supplement and expand the project. So far, all of the funds for the milkweed and butterfly bushes have come from Kanya’s Insectarium.
“We’ve applied for a bunch of grants to get butterfly plants, [Kanya’s] doing the milkweed and trying to expand the horticulture here,” Hylan said.
For more than a year, thousands of milkweed plants that will provide food and serve as breeding shelters for the butterflies have been growing in indoor rooms inside Kanya’s bug museum.
The project also heavily relies on the support from the community to plant milkweed in their personal gardens and outside their homes.
Students from Lincoln High School’s horticultural program have also jumped on board, growing milkweed at school, and will plant the butterfly bushes along Frankford Avenue as part of their senior project, according to Kanya.
In addition to bringing monarchs back, the project will also help foster awareness about the decline of the colorful insects, particularly in surrounding urban regions, Pennsylvania Horticulture Society’s Associate Director Sally McCabe said.
“Here in the city we are getting fewer and fewer hedgerow-kind of places, because everything is manicured and everything is sprayed so there are no weeds,” McCabe explained. “So there is less and less natural occurring milkweed.”
Luckily, milkweed is readily accessible throughout the nation and is relatively easy to maintain. As a perennial, a plants that lasts at least two years before needing to be replanted, the “weed” pumps out foliage for many growing seasons without requiring maintenance throughout the year.
“I can only see good things coming out this, because it would be wonderful if more neighborhoods did something like this,” McCabe said. “Once the word gets out, we become a piece of the migration trail and bring in tourists.”
The Mayfair group agrees.
Scotese estimates the butterfly pavilion in conjunction with the project could help bring more than 200,000 people to the neighborhood in the long run. This number is based on the amount of visitors the Insectarium alone attracts annually.
The founder of the project also hopes the milkweed and butterfly bushes can help beautify the neighborhood, drawing newcomers to the area and local businesses.
“I want the neighborhood to be a nicer looking place, and it turns out we can save butterflies at the same time,” Scotese said.
“Five dollars will help us recover some of our costs, and one milkweed plant can help support hundreds of butterflies — hundreds of eggs,” Scotese said. “One can go a long way. You can maybe have two for 10 bucks and help save the world. How often do we get the save the world?”
— Photos, video, and text by Roseanne Tabachnik and Aaron Windhorst