Pollinating preservation

Teens build butterfly houses for the Zaagkii Wings and Seeds Project

Part one

BARAGA, Mich. - While sounds of buzzing honeybees disappear around the planet at an alarming rate, the sharp crack of pounding hammers echoed across Lake Superior on a hot July day as American Indian teens and other members of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community built butterfly houses for the Zaagkii Wings and Seeds Project to protect pollinators that bring fruits, vegetables and flowers to life.

;'They go through here by folding their wings in the back - backwards - and they walk right through,'' said 17-year-old Ethan Smith while cradling the butterfly house in one arm and stretching the other arm behind his back to demonstrate how the butterflies fold their wings to gain entry to the houses, which are made from northern white cedar.

Cedar Tree Institute, a nonprofit based in Marquette, created the project this summer to help protect pollinators like butterflies, who rival the busy work of bees that are dying in alarming numbers due to a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder.

Feral and commercial bee colonies have declined by 70 to 90 percent in the past 25 years, according to some estimates. Experts say the reasons for Colony Collapse Disorder are not fully understood and may include climate change and insecticides. Without pollinators, many food crops around the world would die.

The three-year project is sponsored by the CTI, Marquette County Juvenile Court, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and the U.S. Forest Service. It is a ''good way for youth to get an awareness of and connection to natural resources and natural systems,'' said KBIC Natural Resource Department Director Todd Warner.

''Pollinators are important and there seems to be a nationwide problem with a declining bee population,'' he said. ''It's another critical piece in the whole web of life - everything is connected, and any negative impact to pollinators will be far-reaching.''

Bees are the most famous pollinators, but others include butterflies, hummingbirds and flies - just about any insect or bird that travels from flower to flower.

''It's important for the butterflies to pollinate so we can get the stuff that we need like vegetables and fruits,'' Smith said. ''And so they don't go extinct - so we can eat those delicious berries and food so that we can survive.''

Lined with bark, the butterfly houses are thinner and longer than the more common birdhouse. Butterfly houses offer protection from predators and bad weather, a resting place during migration and a safety zone for laying eggs.

Zaagkii is Ojibwa for ''the Earth giving forth to the world a gift of plants,'' said the Rev. Jon Magnuson, CTI executive director.

Another important part of the project is planting 26,000 native plants including several acres of the KBIC Sand Point trails along Lake Superior. Native plants are vital to a healthy pollinator population, as some can only eat or lay eggs on certain local plants.

Building butterfly houses is important ''so the butterflies can have rest,'' said tribal dancer Janelle Paquin, 15.

Six teens with the KBIC Summer Youth Program built butterfly houses that will be put up around the pow wow grounds.

''It's something fun for them to do and to learn things that have to deal with the natural resources part of our community,'' said Kim Klopstein, one of the summer youth supervisors. ''It teaches working as part of a team.''

KBIC teens learned that thousands of monarch butterflies rest near Lake Michigan in the southern Upper Peninsula while en route to an annual gathering of 300 million monarchs in Mexico.

The butterfly houses are an important ''resting places for butterflies which are pollinators for flowers and vegetables,'' said Char Beesley, 24, NRD environment specialist.

The USFS assists efforts like the Zaagkii Project to ''make people more aware of the products that result from pollinators,'' said Jan Schultz, USFS botany and non-native species program leader in Milwaukee, Wis. ''For instance, about 80 percent of the plants on Earth are insect-pollinated - about one-third of the food that we eat is insect-pollinated food. So without those insects, life on Earth would look very different.

''We need them - probably significantly more than they need us.''

The teens were recognized for protecting pollinators on July 25 at the 30th annual KBIC Maawanji'iding Pow-Wow.

About 50 miles east of the reservation, teens volunteering for the Zaagkii Project in Marquette built a dozen butterfly houses. Seven were given away July 16 at an annual CTI barbecue that honored the youth.

''The Zaagkii Project has included 720 volunteer hours, 18 butterfly houses built, 390 miles collectively walked and 26,000 hand-processed native plant seeds,'' Magnuson told supporters.

The Zaagkii Project is made possible by contributors like the Marquette Community Foundation, the Negaunee Community Fund, the Negaunee Community Youth Fund, the M.E. Davenport Foundation, the Kaufman Foundation, the Phyllis and Max Reynolds Foundation, with assistance from the Upper Peninsula Children's Museum in Marquette and the Borealis Seed Co. in Big Bay.

Part 2: ''Sand Point to get new look,'' will appear in Vol. 28, Iss. 13 - available Sept. 3.