University City

Neighbors hitch a ride on the Butterfly Highway

Butterfly populations, like monarchs, have shrunk in recent years. The Butterfly Highway Project hopes to lure then back into some of Charlotte's inner-city neighborhoods.
Butterfly populations, like monarchs, have shrunk in recent years. The Butterfly Highway Project hopes to lure then back into some of Charlotte's inner-city neighborhoods. TRACY BANK

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the completion of Interstate 485, but in a few of Charlotte’s oldest neighborhoods, the buzz this summer has been circling more around another thoroughfare of sorts – the Butterfly Highway.

The Butterfly Highway Project, created by UNC Charlotte doctoral student Angel Hjarding, is a new initiative to increase pollinators like butterflies in the city by planting free butterfly gardens.

The gardens are located in neighborhoods where residents have expressed an interest in beautification and agreed to partner with Hjarding as citizen scientists. They’ll monitor and collect data concerning the butterflies they see nearby.

In recent years, the decrease in pollinators like honeybees and butterflies has been a concern for researchers, who believe urban sprawl to be most responsible for the decline. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says that hundreds of pollinating species are nearing extinction.

Pollinators are essential for the survival of flowering plant species, including those that provide produce to eat. The World Conservation Union anticipates that 20,000 flowering plant species will disappear in the next few decades because of the decline of pollinating species.

Hjarding hopes the project, which began in March and runs until September 2016, will make a noticeable difference for those living in Charlotte’s inner-city neighborhoods.

“People used to say to me, ‘You know, I used to see a lot more butterflies, and now I don't see them, or as many different types of them as often as I used to,’” said Hjarding.

Seven neighborhoods signed on to make up the highway – Druid Hills, Graham Heights, Enderly Park, Northwood Estates, Oaklawn, University Park and Washington Heights, along with the Better Rae Thomas Recreational Center and Moore Place.

The project has other purposes, too.

“This is so much larger than butterflies,” said Druid Hills resident Darryl Gaston, one of the first people to get a raised-bed butterfly garden through the project.

Gaston, 54, said the project has brought the neighborhood closer.

Over their fences, residents talk about the monarch and buckeye butterflies they’ve spotted. On their front porches, they share weeding advice.

When Gaston saw a yellow butterfly with black stripes flutter through his yard, he made a commotion that brought his next-door neighbor outside.

“I was so excited I was jumping around,” he said. “My neighbor asked if I’d seen a snake. I said no, an Eastern tiger swallow. It was beautiful.”

In his first week Gaston recorded eight butterfly sightings. Helpful data, said Hjarding, for scientists studying pollinators in the area, now and in the future.

Today, 51 people have signed onto the project, which has a waiting list of more than 20 more who want to be included. Eight of those on the waiting list live in Druid Hills.

It’s a good sign, said Gaston, who has seen the neighborhood go through stages that either promoted togetherness or prevented it, starting with his grandparents, who bought the bungalow he now calls home in the 1940s when it was a predominately white neighborhood.

“They suffered a lot of racial pain,” he said.

Today, the neighborhood is diverse and its residents seem more open to opportunities to gather. The Butterfly Highway project has become one of those opportunities.

“It does my heart good to know that now part of its (Druid Hill’s) history is also the Butterfly Highway,” he said.

Lisa Thornton is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Lisa? Email her at

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