March is springing forth, and with it comes the burgeoning color and life in our Pollinator garden. This garden is a big program focus at Oakland’s Gardens at Lake Merritt, especially this month leading up to the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show, where our Pollinator Posse, the Oakland Museum, the Gardens at Lake Merritt and our Morcom Rose Garden have been invited to create a huge space for education on the importance of Pollinators. Check out all we have planned: March 18-22 in San Mateo.

While there are mbee-hotelany beautiful, more formal themed gardens ringing the center of the Gardens at Lake Merritt, the middle of the garden holds a big area for a wild and crazy pollinator habitat garden. Pollinators – bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects – are in decline and threatened because their habitats are being destroyed by widespread weed spraying and urban sprawl. But you wouldn’t know it to look at the birds and the bees here!
Our park director Tora Rocha founded The Pollinator Posse a few years back to draw more pollinating insects to the garden. The Posse has ridden to new heights with local and national attention, including that huge display at the 2015 San Francisco Flower and Garden Show.

With a nod to the alarming declines in the population of the Monarch butterfly, we plant native and a little tropical milkweed in our gardens, as habitat for the butterflies, their eggs and their caterpillars. Other butterfly species are cultivated as well, and of course our famous Bee Hotel, modeled on a Bee Hotel in the Place des Jardins in Paris. Built by Oakland carpenters in the Department of Public Works, it is a draw for young and old, and adds to our magnetism for many pollinator species. The Bee Hotel shelters drilled openings of many sizes to provide nesting space for various species of native bees and other insects.monarch eclose
Here’s the thing: habitat gardens are inherently messy! Seedlings are growing underfoot, so conventional weeding and mulching have to be handled with special care. There might be larvae of something spectacular lurking under any dead leaf. The caterpillars chomp through the milkweed leaves leaving gaping holes – in a normal garden this would be an unsightly cause for alarm, but for us it’s a sign of success! If they eat here, they lay their eggs here and hatch here.

The first year of the Pollinator Posse project we had just a few butterflies – six by our count. Last year there were 306 and in 2014-15, thanks to our fostering program, we have released over 600 butterflies into the garden.

Monarch Butterfly PhotoAnd fostering caterpillars – what is that anyway? We find lots of Monarch caterpillars in the garden. To protect them from their many predators, we gather them, and volunteers take them home in mesh cages, feed them milkweed for a few weeks till their go into chrysalis, then wait patiently for the exciting emersion when the butterflies “eclose” from the chrysalis.
Monarchs have a storybook migration, metamorphosing their way from Mexico and California to British Columbia each year, over four generations of butterflies that magically keeps knowing where to go. The Western Migration of the Monarchs overwinters in coastal California, while the Eastern Migration goes to Mexico.