Send­ing 30Monar­chs off to Mex­ico

The Review - - News - Mike Weil­bacher Mike Weil­bacher di­rects the Schuylkill Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion in Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike and can be reached at mike.weil­bacher@schuylkill­cen­

On Sun­day, while work­ing in a small side­yard gar­den at my home, I no­ticed a funny flut­ter of or­ange — a monarch but­ter­fly, that fa­mous flyer that mi­grates to Mex­ico for the win­ter, was sit­ting on a leaf along­side its now-empty chrysalis, dry­ing out its wings.

I was elated: mon­archs have been strug­gling in re­cent years, slammed here in Amer­ica from a lack of milk­weed, the host plant they need for rais­ing their cater­pil­lars, and slammed in Mex­ico from cli­mate change and il­le­gal log­ging in their moun­tain forests.

But then I saw a green chrysalis dan­gling from a rock in the foun­da­tion of my home. Then an­other. Then three hang­ing from un­der­neath a win­dow frame. As I scanned the small gar­den, I sud­denly found about 20 of them. But wait: an­other adult monarch was flut­ter­ing by, land­ing on my lad­der. Then an­other was perched onmy din­ing roomwin­dow above the air condi- tioner. An­other high up on my roof. Oh, wow, a chrysalis hung all the way up be­neath the third-floor bed­room win­dow, too.

I called my wife to come out, and that morn­ing, she and I found about 25 chrysalises and seven adults— more mon­archs in one place then I have seen in the last sev­eral years com­bined.

In that time, I also luck­ily saw three of them take their maiden flights — and all three went in the ex­act same di­rec­tion: south. They were headed to Mex­ico.

The monarch but­ter­fly is an ex­tra­or­di­nary crea­ture, de­fy­ing logic. Em­bed­ded in a small col­lec­tion of nerve cells gen­er­ously called a brain is a GPS di­rect­ing the in­sect to fly from Roxborough all the way to a moun­tain val­ley near Mex­ico City, where it joins ev­ery other monarch from east of the Rock­ies (west­ern mon­archs head to the Pa­cific coast). As you read this, mon­archs across the eastern U.S. and even Canada are fly­ing south, many along the eastern seaboard. If you’d like a treat, drive to Cape May and watch clus­ters of them that fun­nel down New Jersey hop the Delaware Bay to get to the main­land and con­tinue their jour­ney.

Once in Mex­ico, they gather in large groups to coat fir trees with mil­lions of their bod­ies, a re­mark­able sight vis­ited by thou­sands of eco-tourists an­nu­ally. The butterflies wait out the long win­ter, liv­ing five months — Methuse­lah ter­ri­tory for an in­sect.

In early spring, they be­gin head­ing north, make it into Texas, lay their eggs — and die. It takes an­other gen­er­a­tion or two for mon­archs to make it back to Penn­syl­va­nia, not un­til early summer. So the butterflies hatch­ing in my gar­den will start fly­ing more than a thou­sand miles to a place they have never been. How’s that for Mother Na­ture’s plan­ning?

Fe­male mon­archs are ex­cep­tional botanists, lay­ing eggs only on one fam­ily of plants, the milk­weeds. She tastes plants with her feet, lay­ing eggs on the un­der­sides of milk­weed leaves. Cater­pil­lars hatch from eggs and im­me­di­ately be­gin munch­ing on milk­weed — the only food they are adapted to eat. The crea­tures take the nox­ious chem­i­cals found in milk­weed sap and uses it to make them­selves — both cater­pil­lar and adult — bad-tast­ing for any bird that may try to eat it.

Which gets us to my gar­den. Mov­ing here 25 years ago, the pre­vi­ous owner was for­tu­nately a lazy gar­dener, and a patch of com­mon milk­weed, an ag­gres­sive plant that can grow 5 feet tall, had been grow­ing in front of our chim­ney. Know­ing its value, I let it stay, and ev­ery year, a small num­ber of cater­pil­lars ap­pear in the gar­den — with the ex­cep­tion of the last few, when none that I ever saw came from my milk­weed. Sud­denly last month, I did see at least two mon­archs lay­ing eggs in my gar­den, and I was thrilled — but never ex­pected this.

Sadly, monarch pop­u­la­tions have been de­clin­ing dra­mat­i­cally in the last decade, los­ing 90 per­cent of the num­bers that once vis­ited Mex­ico. New ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied her­bi­cide-re­sis­tant crops like corn and soy­beans al­low farm­fields to be sprayed with her­bi­cides, and much ofMid­dle Amer­ica is sud­denly a milk­weed desert — the plant has strug­gled.

It’s a sim­ple equa­tion: no milk­weed, no cater­pil­lars; no cater­pil­lars, no butterflies. Fewer have been re­turn­ing to Mex­ico each year, and their sta­tus is be­ing mon­i­tored closely. So the monarch has be- come a con­ser­va­tion cause célèbre, with “Got Milk­weed?” T-shirts and bumper stick­ers do­ing brisk busi­ness, and peo­ple like me keep­ing or plant­ing more milk­weeds.

You can eas­ily join the monarch brigade: come to the Schuylkill Cen­ter any­time in the next few weeks and get a packet of milk­weed seeds to take home. Come to our plant sale this Satur­day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and buy milk­weeds to plant so you can at­tract mon­archs next year.

It is a beau­ti­ful in­sect, but a highly en­dan­gered phe­nom­e­non. Plant some milk­weed, and maybe next year you’ll have a Sun­day like me, count­ing chrysalises in your gar­den.


A freshly hatched adult dries its wings on the side of Mike Weil­bacher’s house.

Monarch chrysalises dan­gle like jew­elry from un­der­neath Mike Weil­bacher’s din­ing room, the cater­pil­lars hav­ing crawled up out of the milk­weed to find a quiet place to trans­form.

This monarch emerged from a chrysalis tucked un­der­neath an iris leaf.

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