How does biodiversity help an ecosystem?

A monarch touches down in the ecosystem of this purple thistle flower. See more insect pictures.
A monarch touches down in the ecosystem of this purple thistle flower. See more insect pictures.

"Hon! Look what I found."

Karen walked into the house holding an orange and black butterfly in her cupped hand. I immediately knew what those Halloween colors meant — the monarchs had arrived.

"Wow," I said in bug-eyed amazement. "I've been here 14 years, and never have I seen a monarch butterfly. That's pretty cool."

Indeed it was. Once upon a time, butterflies of any sort were rare on my two Connecticut acres (0.8 hectares). They'd flutter over only a small portion of the property lapping up the nectar from my blooming black-eyed Susans, echinacea, roses, hydrangeas, tulips and foxglove. They stayed away from the rest of the property — a tangle of dead trees, poison ivy, underground wasp nests, and thorny brambles and vines.

By the spring of 2012, I had enough. I bulldozed the dead trees, excavated the rocks and planted a lawn framed by a field of wildflowers. Whaddya know? I inadvertently turned my property into a bustling ecosystem. An army of monarchs and birds soon found a home among the new flowers and grasses. Field mice and moles scurried as never before. Heck, I even saw a snake slither pass.

Of course, not all the critters were welcomed, as is the case of all ecosystems. Much to my dismay, a family of deer sneaked over the fence to nibble on the flowers. Dive-bombing horseflies irritated my dogs at dusk.

Still, I watched in awe as the bees and butterflies skipped from flower to flower while cardinals, buntings, finches and other birds feasted on seeds and feed. I knew the snake and the family of hawks that nested nearby were chowing down on the field mice. Even our barn cat, Blackie, got in on the act. He bagged a mole and left it on the front porch. It seems the chipmunks were too fast.

I was extremely proud of my accidental biosphere. It helped me understand that biodiversity (or how much biological difference you can pack into a particular spot) is important no matter the size of an ecosystem. The monarchs came because they loved the flowers. The bees danced because they had a new source of food. The grass and the new rock garden provided shade, safety and a breeding ground for myriad insects and small animals. Can biodiversity help an ecosystem? You bet. Go the next page to find out how.