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Butterfly champions remain resolute

By Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Published 4:01 PDT, Tue June 23, 2020

Last Updated: 4:35 PDT, Tue June 23, 2020

Mitchell elementary teacher Anita Lau is celebrating National Pollinator Week a little differently this year.

Two years ago, the school became part of the Butterflyway project, a David Suzuki Foundation initiative where volunteers plant habitat ‘highways’ for pollinators like butterflies and bees.

“Each spring we plant host and nectar plants in our schoolyard garden,” says Lau. “We care for the seedlings, make observations and learn in the outdoor classroom.”

The learning experience is beneficial for students, who practice butterfly identification as well as learning about the plants.

“As an educator, I’ve found the Butterflyway project provides opportunities for students to unplug and get outside,” says Lau.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the usual outdoor classroom has been replaced by a virtual space. Students who returned to school in June helped with weeding and watering the garden, and all students have been meeting daily on Zoom to participate in the project.

After engaging in virtual rap lessons, students and teachers are working together on a collaborative video. Each student participated as a rapper or an artist, sending in video clips or butterfly art to be compiled by a parent who works in the film industry.

“We even managed to get Mr. Plumb, our principal, to be in the rap,” says Lau. “It’s about letting play take care of us in hard times.”

Later this week, the video will be shared to celebrate National Pollinator Week.

The Butterflyway project started in BC in 2017, with Richmond and Victoria as the first cities to get involved. Since then it’s grown to include Vancouver and North Vancouver, as well as pilot projects in Burnaby, Surrey, and West Vancouver.

It provides Canadians with an opportunity to get into gardening—and help sustain butterflies and other pollinators.

“We know that Canadians love the environment, but often people feel helpless,” says BC project lead Winnie Hwo.

Through the program, volunteer Butterflyway ‘rangers’ commit to planting and nurturing a garden in their community. This year, there are 86 new volunteers in the Lower Mainland—but the program also runs as far away as Toronto and Montreal. And this year, the organizers also developed a second stream that’s based in online engagement. 

Prior to the pandemic, they planned to recruit 40 volunteers across the country who were not already involved in the existing project. But there were hundreds of applicants, and the selection committee found themselves unable to turn anyone away.

“Everybody brings their knowledge and their passion, so we said to hell with the 40,” says Hwo. Now, the project has over 300 rangers, each of whom are also tasked with recruiting five friends to join them and help the planting team. 

The online program brings people together through webinars and other communication channels, like Facebook groups, where they share ideas.

“It’s a much bigger family now than we first anticipated,” says Hwo. “COVID-19 basically expanded our program.”

Among Richmond’s online community members are representatives for several schools, including Lau and Richmond secondary’s Eugene Harrison.

“Last year they built a pollinator garden in the back of the school, and this year the plants grew so they have more than they can imagine, so they also planted in the front of the school,” says Hwo of the Richmond secondary Green Team.

But the project isn’t limited to those who applied early—anyone can help out by planting things that attract butterflies and other pollinators. Then, Hwo says, those people can become part of the Butterflyway ranger program the following year if they’re interested.

“This year we identified 12 Indigenous pollinator plants with our rangers, and we’ve been sharing that (list) with people who missed the deadline to join the project,” says Hwo. 

And they’re also promoting the ‘butterflies in my backyard’ (BIMBY) project—offered through the iNaturalist website and app—to anyone who sees a butterfly and wants to contribute their discovery with the online community.

While the usual in-person ‘planting parties’ can’t take place this year, Hwo encourages people to get out in their communities and look for Butterflyway gardens.

“They’re all over the place,” she says. “And right now is the most beautiful time to go.”

For more information on Richmond’s Butterflyway project, including a map of garden locations, click here.

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