Learning from Nature, Gathering Data – Citizen Science in the Garden

On the day the International Union for the Conservation of Nature announced that migratory monarch butterflies had been added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, I found a monarch caterpillar chewing on milkweed in my garden. The four square foot patch of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) that lured the parent butterfly to lay eggs is a scrappy transplant situated amidst a stretch of liriope. Because of the stress of digging up the milkweed’s taproot, the plant was not a particularly vigorous bloomer in its new location, which was meant as a placeholder as the garden was redesigned.

Despite these less than optimal conditions, I counted seven monarch caterpillars on the milkweed a few weeks after the IUCN announcement and, a bit later, discovered two monarch chrysalises hanging from the siding on my house. By chance, I was able to observe one monarch as it completed its metamorphosis, freeing itself from the chrysalis and drying its wings before wafting away.

An internationally recognized endangered species was reproducing in my suburban garden, on a plant temporarily stuck in the ground. Could restoring the environment really be this easy?

Well, no, but as anyone who has planted milkweed understands, such small acts can be both symbolic and practical: symbolic in that they represent potential–imagine the patch of milkweed multiplied–and practical in that they do contribute to restoration efforts, if only by a few caterpillars.

Equally important is what can be learned from this process. When you plant milkweed, the entire lifecycle of the monarch butterfly becomes visible. You realize through this experience how the destruction of monarch habitat–the removal of the milkweed host from the environment–reduces monarch populations, knowledge that makes it easier to support environmental policies favoring monarchs.

Nature provides countless opportunities to learn from small acts. A similar education occurs after planting asters, when bees and beetles, flies, moths, and butterflies land on the flowers, feeding at a time of year–late summer and autumn–when nectar and pollen are not plentiful. It becomes clear that garden design should include an element beyond aesthetics and the mantra of “right plant, right place”: right nectar, pollen, and host plants to attract and sustain pollinators and other beneficial insects year-round.

Possible Condylostylus Fly – A Mite and Aphid Predator

Watching these insects in real time leaves an impression more powerful than any articles I’ve read or webinars I’ve viewed about gardening for wildlife. “Let Nature be your teacher,” the poet William Wordsworth wrote two centuries ago, advice that is even more compelling in an era of climate change and rapid species extinction. I am awestruck as I observe these mostly tiny creatures access nectar and gather pollen, all in their own way, and marvel every time metamorphosis from egg to larva to pupa to monarch butterfly succeeds. I want to learn more. And it’s easy, once you see it, to become lost in the beauty of these creatures, the jewel-like and shimmering colors and abstract patterning of thoraxes and wings.

But it’s more than beauty that calls out for observation, it’s the behavior of individual pollinator species. The bees that visit the penstemon in spring are different from the bees that visit the agastache in summer. The tiger swallowtails that land on the verbena do not appear as interested in the nearby ruellia. How pollinators act, which plants attract them (and when those plants bloom), whether they are infrequent or frequent visitors, the time of year they arrive — these are all points of data. Such data, collected and reported by individual gardeners through citizen science projects such as Budburst and Bumble Bee Watch, and analyzed by project scientists, can help tell the story of pollinator species and how they are faring.

Planting for pollinators is a conscious act that brings beauty and life to the garden. Taking the additional step of reporting garden observations to the citizen science community lends support to conservation efforts, increasing the likelihood that pollinators, and the plants that depend on them, will survive. Nature teaches, and we watch and listen and share what we learn, giving back to keep nature going.


  1. “Migratory monarch butterfly now Endangered – IUCN Red List”, IUCN Press Release, July 21, 2022. Accessed October 28, 2022. https://www.iucn.org/press-release/202207/migratory-monarch-butterfly-now-endangered-iucn-red-list
  2. Danaus plexippus ssp. plexippus (Migratory Monarch Butterfly). IUCN Red List. Accessed October 28, 2022. https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/194052138/200522253
  3. Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems, 1800, Volume 1 by William Wordsworth. See the poem “The Tables Turned; An Evening Scene, on the same Subject.” Project Gutenberg. Accessed November 2, 2022. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8905
  4. Butterfly Life Cycle. The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Accessed October 28, 2022. https://ansp.org/exhibits/online-exhibits/butterflies/lifecycle/

If you’d like to learn more about citizen science or find a project for your garden . . .

Budburst. Chicago Botanic Garden. Accessed November 1, 2022. https://budburst.org/

Bumble Bee Watch. The Xerces Society, the University of Ottawa, Wildlife Preservation Canada, BeeSpotter, The Natural History Museum, London, and the Montreal Insectarium. Accessed November 1, 2022. https://www.bumblebeewatch.org/

Citizen Science Association. Accessed October 28, 2022. https://citizenscience.org/

CitizenScience.gov. Accessed October 28, 2022. https://www.citizenscience.gov/#

Community Science. Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Accessed October 28, 2022. https://xerces.org/community-science

JourneyNorth. Arboretum, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Accessed November 3, 2022. https://journeynorth.org/

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