Nature lovers spearhead efforts to transform Bat Yam into a butterfly paradise, attracting new species to the city’s streets.

Bat Yam butterflies

Bat Yam’s educational butterfly pavilion has so far attracted four species of butterflies and a whole lot of schoolchildren.

Butterflies are arriving in great colorful swarms to Israel’s Mediterranean city of Bat Yam, attracted to 150,000 new plants brought to town by the chief municipal landscaper, Eliav Hatuka. The beautiful insects are an indication of a healthy environment, since they avoid polluted places.

“Where there’s clean air, they come,” Hatuka tells ISRAEL21c. “It’s nice to see how the number and quality of the butterflies increase as you get farther from the highways and closer to the shore.”

The notion of transforming Bat Yam, a relatively poor tightly-packed city just south of Tel Aviv, into Israel’s first natural butterfly city started with Hatuka’s summer 2008 family outing to Ramat Hanadiv, a memorial park in the northern town of Zichron Ya’acov that includes a small butterfly garden.

Thinking along the lines of one small butterfly garden, he consulted with Dubi Benyamini, head of the Israeli Lepidopterists Society for butterfly and moth enthusiasts, whose English website should be ready in the near future. Benyamini recommended taking a survey to ascertain which butterflies already existed in the area – it turned up 13 species – and planting numerous gardens of butterfly-attracting plants along Bat Yam’s east-west boulevards starting from the beachfront.

“These tracks will become butterflies ecological corridors,” Benyamini recalls predicting then.

Sure enough, aromatic plants such as verbena, cassia, lantana, sophora, duranta, and ruda soon started attracting lots of butterflies – now 21 species in all – including the common swallowtail, one of the largest and most beautiful butterflies in Israel; and the large white-yellow African migrant.

“There was not even one known [cassia] plant in Bat Yam, but when Eliav’s gardeners started to plant it, the strong migrant smelled it and not more than two weeks later I observed the first eggs on the plants in southern Bat Yam,” says Benyamini. “This butterfly has expanded all over the city and the mild winter supports its permanent existence here.” He believes more species will follow their noses to Bat Yam as well.

Taking the ecological temperature

Yellow butterfly

When there’s clean air, they come,” says Bat Yam chief municipal landscaper Eliav Hatuka.

Encouraged by this success, Mayor Shlomi Lahiani gave the green light for spending about NIS1 million to purchase butterfly-attracting plants and to construct a butterfly pavilion in the city nursery where visitors can learn about the insects and their significance in taking the ecological temperature of the city.

The Bat-Yam Butterfly Experiment, the first of its kind in Israel, was formally introduced during Bat Yam’s September Biennale celebrating landscape urbanism and expansion of the city’s open areas and cultural life.

“All year we’re planting anyway, so we just had to make a switch to buy plants that butterflies love,” says Hatuka. “It looks complicated, but it’s not. We built a route of gardens close to each other so the butterflies can flutter here and there.” In cooperation with local businesses, the municipality also sells plants at a low cost to Bat Yam’s 160,000 residents. “We try to let the community take part in the experience.”

A butterfly pavilion

During the Biennale, local mother and journalist Nili Shahar opened an educational butterfly pavilion in a 115-by-33 foot tomato hothouse, where visitors fed butterflies from nectar-dipped sticks and explored museum displays about many kinds of insects. So far, the pavilion has attracted four species of butterflies and a whole lot of schoolchildren.

Eventually, Shahar hopes to hand out “butterfly flower” seed packets for the kids to take home. Trained through an International Butterfly Breeders Association course in Costa Rica, Shahar loves introducing children to the insect world. “I see the butterflies as an excuse to open their hearts and minds to all the small creatures in the world,” she says. “I want to expose them to other creatures like beetles and to learn about their lifecycles.”

Wooing the butterflies

Though Bat Yam’s project is the largest of its type, butterflies are being wooed in other spots as well, such as a butterfly pavilion at Kibbutz Bachan’s Utopia Orchid Park.

Last May, the Israeli Lepidopterists Society organized the first International Congress of Middle East Butterflies on its 25th anniversary. Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra took the opportunity to name a new butterfly subspecies, the orange-gold Jerusalem fritillary. Noting that about a quarter of Israel’s 113 species of butterflies are endangered by development and pollution of their natural habitats, Ezra called for monitoring and conservation, and pledged to approve a long-awaited law to protect 14 threatened butterfly species.