THE WILD SIDE
By Maria de Bruyn
If you follow news about nature, you may have come across warnings that the monarch butterfly has been in dire straits for many years now.
These lovely orange and black butterflies migrate in a multi-generational process between Canada and central Mexico in the spring and fall. The last generation to emerge in late summer can live up to eight months (compared to six-eight weeks for the generations that reproduce) and individual butterflies may travel as far as 1,200-3,000 miles to get to their warmer over-wintering grounds.
Since the 1980s, the Eastern U.S. monarch population has declined by about 80 percent. Milkweed plants (the only food source for their caterpillars) have been systematically removed from fields, roadsides, ditches and forests through the use of herbicides and repeated mowing. Climate change has also affected the butterflies’ breeding and migratory patterns so that reproduction has been reduced.
One way to help the monarchs thrive is to plant native milkweeds in your own yard and/or other natural spaces to which you have access. Common milkweeds (Asclepias syriaca) are robust plants with large globular clusters of pink or purple flowers.
Butterfly weed (also known as butterfly milkweed; Asclepias tuberosa) is a bit more delicate in appearance, with small clusters of orange, reddish and yellow flowers.
This year, I had both types of milkweed in my yard and at one point I saw a female monarch laying eggs on them. After a few days, I counted 17 caterpillars crawling up and down the plants, reducing some plants to mere stems as they grew rapidly while eating voraciously and leaving frass (poop) on the leaves and ground.
It was a thrill to watch one caterpillar make the transformation into a chrysalis. When they are ready for this process, they attach themselves to a plant stem and hang down; when they form a J shape, it signals the change will soon be underway. Then starting from the head, the outer skin rolls up as the new covering develops.
I kept that chrysalis in my house and waited for it to turn black, which signals the butterfly is almost through developing inside. One morning I found the newly emerged monarch drying its wings. I took it outside so that it could fly free and then begin its trip to Mexico.
You, too, can contribute to saving the monarchs by planting some milkweed if you have an area for this. Autumn is the best time to plant milkweed seeds, but you can try it in the spring as well. Common milkweed typically doesn’t flower during its first year, but butterfly weed will give you flowers in its first season; the latter plants may be slow to emerge at first. Both of these milkweed varieties are perennials so be sure to remember where you planted them.
More ideas on how you can participate with helping efforts to save this iconic butterfly are at this U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website: https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/
More information on monarchs can be found here:
Maria de Bruyn participates in several nature-oriented citizen science projects, volunteers at Mason Farm Biological Reserve and the Orange County Senior Center, leads a nature-themed virtual book club, and writes a blog focusing on wildlife at https://mybeautifulworldblog.com