Sending 30Monarchs off to Mexico
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.