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by Susan Hellauer
The brightly clad visitors arrive by air at their winter resorts in Mexico, traveling light, as always. They’ve come to relax and just hang—by the millions, from the branches of rare oyamel fir trees in mountaintop forests.
Every year, monarch butterflies winter over in Mexico or southern California from November to March, when they awaken to begin a multi-generational journey back to the northern states and Canada. They won’t get farther than our southern states, where they’ll mate and lay eggs during their four-week life cycle. Their children and grandchildren will repeat the cycle, and continue leapfrogging northward. Finally, the fourth generation will hatch in cooler northern climes and, mysteriously gifted with an extended life span, make the entire 3,000-mile journey back to Mexico—an ancestral home they’ve never seen.
Up until a couple of decades ago, the bright orange creatures with stained-glass wings dotted New York’s late summer sky and meadows. But our wildflower fields—and meadows everywhere—have been replaced by homes and malls. Agribusiness farms and suburban landscapes are soaked with pesticides that kill butterflies and other pollinators, and wipe out their food sources. Galloping climate change confounds migrating species of all kinds. The result? Monarch butterfly migration numbers have nosedived since at least the 1990s, falling from at least one billion then to about 33 million now. But thanks to a growing alliance between home gardeners, citizen scientists, environmental nonprofits, and even the government, there’s a chance that this spectacular natural event will recover and endure.
Just folks to the monarch butterfly rescue
Environmental nonprofits like Monarch Watch and Journey North want to get ordinary people involved in studying monarch butterfly migration. Knowledge is power, and scientists need a clear picture of migratory patterns and numbers in order to understand and support this “canary in the coal mine” of insects.
Nyack resident and organic gardener Laura Pakaln spoke to Earth Matters about her own monarch butterfly project at the Rockland Country Day School in Congers. Pakaln is the K-8 environmental education instructor there, and was looking for a citizen science project to pursue with her students this year. She found Monarch Watch, where she learned how to create a monarch way station at the school, watched videos on catching and tagging the fast-moving butterflies, and bought the necessary supplies.
“The peak migration period for this area is September 15, so monarchs were well on their way through our area when school began. Our ‘tag teams’ caught and labeled the monarchs, and recorded pertinent info on data sheets,” said Pakaln. She also started tagging in her own Nyack backyard, and at the butterfly garden within the Nyack Community Garden.
So, how do those little tags stay stuck on all the way to Mexico? “Well, people have been tagging monarchs to study their migration patterns since the 1940s, and they’ve come up with a safe glue that really sticks.” Pakaln also pointed out that Monarch Watch pays a fee to those who find and return tags on overwintering monarchs in Mexico. “It provides income and encourages preservation of the place where monarchs go every winter.” Pakaln noted that these areas are under pressure from increased avocado farming, mining plans, and illegal logging.
A monarch butterfly haven
Not far down the road, there’s an expansive monarch way station disguised as an Audubon Award-winning golf course, the Rockland Country Club. The club’s groundskeeper Matt Ceplo spoke to EM on a trek around the Sparkill links, where monarch stragglers sipped from fading verbena plants, just off the impeccably manicured greens.
About seven years ago, Ceplo “backed into” monarch preservation and tagging: “Our first native plant beds were meant to save money and create wildlife habitats. They were virtually weed free at first, but milkweed started colonizing the area.” The groundskeeper began to get complaints about the “weedy” look. “When I identified milkweed through a web search, I also found its connections to the monarch butterfly.” He learned that adult monarchs feed on nectar from flowering plants, but will only lay their eggs on the milkweed plant, which provides food for their offspring caterpillars.
Through Monarch Watch, Ceplo began to track and tag monarchs on his course, sometimes with the help of local Girl Scout troops. He realized that he’d also have to educate club members about the monarch butterfly and its habitat. He brought larvae on their milkweed cradles indoors, so that members and their families could understand the vital connection between milkweed and monarch survival. “These hand-raised caterpillars are my ambassadors,” Ceplo said. “They educate our members about the native plants and other habitats on the course, which support all our local pollinators.”
In a couple of weeks Ceplo will be on his way to Kansas City for a delegate meeting of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. He and his colleagues have scheduled time to meet with Dr. Chip Taylor, emeritus professor of biology at the University of Kansas, and director of Monarch Watch.
How does Ceplo explain all his extra effort to save a butterfly? “It’s like the pope said: ‘God always forgives, man sometimes, nature never.’”
What you can do to help
A warming climate has held back some of the migrating monarchs in Canada, and southbound stragglers can still be seen in green open places.
But with most monarchs resting comfortably in Mexico, it’s a great time to make monarch-friendly plans to welcome their descendants back, and stop the decades-long slide in their numbers. Laura Pakaln shared her suggestions:
- Plant milkweed (the monarch caterpillar’s sole food) and other native nectar flowers (for mature butterflies). Plan now for some garden space to support local pollinators. Remember: no pollinators, no food. (Milkweed can be planted right now, or started indoors in the spring.)
- Garden organically. Avoid herbicides or insecticides in your plant beds and lawns. Read labels on the lawn “food” you’re about to spread.
- If you’re an apartment dweller, consider a window box with nectar flowers.
- Ask your village, town or school about planting milkweed and other native flowers in public areas or school gardens.
- Protect open space.
- Pitch in with a group, like PRISM, that fights the invasive plant swallow wort, which is spreading in our area. Monarchs mistake it for milkweed and lay their eggs on its leaves, which its doomed caterpillars cannot eat.
- Become a citizen scientist, on your own or with family or friends, and join the monarch tagging and tracking community. You’ll help researchers learn more about migratory patterns. And you’ll plan effective habitat restoration along migratory routes. You (and your kids or students) will learn a lot about monarchs, and much more.
Monarch butterfly advocates have reason to smile, cautiously, just a little bit: the number of overwintering monarchs in 2016 showed a 255% increase over the previous year. But the February 2017 numbers were down about 27% from there. Local observers in Mexico report that this year’s migration looks encouraging.
- The many organizations partnering to study and protect monarch butterflies are gathered at monarchjointventure.org
- Monarch Watch
- NYS DEC Monarch Butterfly page
- US Fish and Wildlife Service: “Save the Monarch”
- Track the monarch’s migration at Journey North
- “Swarms of Monarch Butterflies Stuck Up North,” Yale Environment 360, 10/27/17
- Monarch butterfly eco-tourism
- For milkweed seeds, contact the Nyack Library Seed Exchange, buy them from Monarch Watch’s Milkweed Market, or contact nurseries that specialize in native plants, like the Hudson Valley Seed Company.
- “Can a Golf Course Be a Sustainable Space,” Nyack News and Views, 7/2/16
- “The Seeds We Sow,” Nyack News and Views, 3/18/17
featured image: tagged monarch butterfly (Katie Steiger-Meister for US Fish and Wildlife Service)
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Earth Matters, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio.