Lifting the fading monarch
Cockeysville’s Pam Spencer doing her part to restore the threatened butterfly
Pam Spencer was about to dig up a fading milkweed plant in her garden when her husband, Steve, showed her a blackand-yellow larva he’d found on one of its leaves.
It was a monarch butterfly in its earliest stages of life.
At her computer, she learned it had less than a 3 percent chance of surviving in the wild. She fostered it, released it and did the same with 24 others. A new passion took flight.
Spencer, a pediatric nurse who lives in Cockeysville, has reared, tagged and released nearly 2,000 monarch butterflies in the three years since — work that has made her one of the more prolific of the growing number of people in Maryland joining the international effort to safeguard the imperiled species.
Like the black-and-orange insects as she lets them go, she has found it an exhilarating journey.
“It’s crazy,” she says. “It has turned into this big, beautiful thing. It has taken me to wonderful, wonderful places I’d never have been.”
The monarch butterfly is known for its bold colors and its extraordinary practice of migrating from Canada and the northern United States to Mexico and back every year.
It’s the longest round-trip journey made by any butterfly — 2,000 miles each way for most.
But the population is in trouble. A variety of destructive factors along its migration path, mostly man-made, have combined to shrink its numbers by a staggering 80 percent to 90 percent over the past two decades.
In the United States, overdevelopment of land and widespread use of agricultural herbicides have helped decimate milkweed and nectar-rich flowers. Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch larvae will feed, and the flowers serve as fuel for the fliers as they travel south.
In Mexico, meanwhile, illegal logging has shrunk the butterflies’ habitat.
The monarch butterfly is on the World Wildlife Federation’s near-threatened list, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reportedly weighed classifying it as endangered. The trends have inspired action. Orley “Chip” Taylor, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Kansas, leads Monarch Watch, a nonprofit conservation group that coordinates nearly 15,000 registered way stations for the butterfly across the United States.
Monarch lovers at these sites, many of them volunteers, track the butterflies during migration, tag them for monitoring and keep monarch-friendly plants growing in abundance.
In the past half-decade, conservation groups such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation have stepped up their work with federal, state and local governments on the monarch’s behalf.
In 2015, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an organization with member groups in Canada, the United States and Mexico, released a long-term monarch conservation plan. President Barack Obama later created a task force on pollinators, asking participating agencies to help establish a 100-mile-wide “butterfly highway” between Minnesota and Texas.
And the U.S. Department of Agriculture is spending $4 million this year to help monarch lovers in 10 heartland states plant milkweed and nectar-rich plants.
Maryland isn’t one of those states, but residents are growing ever more aware of the problem and acting on it, says Jessica Jeannetta, a naturalist at Oregon Ridge Nature Center in Cockeysville.
Staff at the center collect monarch eggs and caterpillars from farms and other sites nearby — focusing particularly on places about to be mowed — take them back and raise them for release.
“We have them in the nature center on displays. We’ll hatch eggs here, and people can see them as caterpillars and throughout the life cycle before we release them,” Jeannetta says.
Each fall, monarchs that live east of the Rocky Mountains journey to a region of the Transvolcanic Mountain Range in central Mexico, where they spend the winter hanging in clusters from the branches of Pam Spencer, a self-taught expert on monarch butterflies, raises them at her home. The population has declined 80 percent to 90 percent over the past two decades. The monarch butterfly is on the World Wildlife Federation’s near-threatened list. oyamel fir trees.
Those that live west of the Rockies make a similar migration to a few sites in coastal California. Clustered tightly in dense leaves, they create a temperate environment through the winter before beginning their return flight home in early spring.
The migrations are so consistent and carried out so precisely that scientists are still trying to figure out how the insects do it — and how they pass their collective knowledge along.
“Amazingly, they fly in masses to the same winter roosts, often to the exact same trees,” Taylor says.
Monarchs are valuable as pollinators. And fans say the overwintering phenomenon alone is a thing of rare beauty.
Betsy Kadow, a ranger at Lake Roland Park, and her mother, Kathy, a naturalist at Cromwell Valley Park, drove to California last winter to see it up close.
The butterflies that had settled in a grove in Pismo Beach were so tightly packed, they say, that they looked at first like leaves.
“There seemed to be millions huddled on each tree. It was absolutely breathtaking,” Betsy says.
Oregon Ridge Nature Center and Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton are certified Monarch Watch way stations, two of dozens in Maryland. Others are the Eden Mill Nature Center in northern Harford County and the Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center in Baltimore.
One of the more fruitful is Spencer’s place, near Warren Elementary School.
As her fascination with the species deepened, Spencer didn’t just keep the milkweed plant and add more. She planted zinnias, goldenrod, Mexican sunflowers and other nectar-rich flowers, and bought aquarium-like tanks for nurturing eggs and caterpillars each year.
She also completed the 40-hour training regimen of the Baltimore County Master Gardeners, a program of the University of Maryland Extension, an educational out- reach group.
As a volunteer, Spencer travels the state giving lectures on the butterfly. She hosts tag-and-release parties at schools, hospitals and centers for the disabled. She sees monarchs as a healing force. When she learned that a young patient she was caring for was curious about the insects, she invited him to her house to learn more.
The boy, Kyle Reedholm of Cockeysville, now 9, had been hospitalized with pneumonia.
He has been studying monarchs for the past year and raising them at home, and has given talks about the butterflies at school.
He was in Spencer’s backyard last week as she prepared to release her 500th monarch this year.
Spencer held one out to Kyle, who held it gently, lifted it high and smiled as he let it go.
“Goodbye and have a great trip,” he said, “wherever you end up.”
Pam Spencer, a pediatric nurse who lives in Cockeysville, is pictured in her backyard with a butterfly on a Mexican sunflower. Spencer has reared, tagged and released nearly 2,000 monarch butterflies. “It’s crazy,” she says. “It has turned into this big, beautiful thing.”