Any minute now the first monarch butterflies will wing their way into the northland on their annual migration. Thanks to the first-ever Duluth Monarch Festival this weekend, I learned that the butterflies that return to Minnesota aren’t the ones that left in fall for Mexico, but are their offspring that grew up in early spring somewhere in the southern U.S.
If they aren’t the butterflies that left here, how do they know to return? How can an insect that weighs about the same as a paperclip survive the long flight? These are just some of the intriguing questions that surround monarchs.
On the street where I grew up, milkweed (the monarch caterpillar’s favorite plant food) flourished in a vacant lot kitty-corner from our house. I had a little round wire mesh insect container where I would grow the caterpillars into butterflies indoors. I can’t recall exactly how I learned to do this, but suspect my older brothers taught me. I raised dozens, fascinated by the transformations the caterpillars went through in becoming the beautiful black, orange and white butterflies that are so distinctive and a joy to see.
My attachment to the creatures even extended to the schoolyard. On one of my first days on the kindergarten playground, a boy killed a monarch caterpillar. I thought he was the cruelest person on the planet, and begged him not to kill it because, “These are the ones that make butterflies!” Other than that, I lacked the communication skills to tell him why I was so upset. I ended up burying the caterpillar underneath a pile of playground pebbles. Now I understand his actions were just the casual cruelty of boys (and because he had probably never raised caterpillars), but for the rest of my grade school career, I shunned him as The Boy Who Kills Caterpillars.
Playground killings aside, the monarch population has dropped significantly over the years due to habitat loss, pesticide use, and a wacky climate — to the point that the fall migration to Mexico is in danger of disappearing. The last two years have had the lowest counts in history. Instead of taking up 18 hectares of roosting forest in Mexico (1996), the butterflies now only take up 2-4 hectares.
One relatively painless way to learn more about the plight of the monarch is to read “Flight Behavior,” a novel by Barbara Kingsolver.
The monarch festival I attended is one effort to help this beleaguered bug, and the organizers hope to make it an annual event. The goal was to educate citizens about monarchs and to help people become involved in restoring monarch habitat. One of the speakers was Prof. Karen Oberhauser from the University of Minnesota. She said an estimated two million more milkweed plants are needed for the monarch population to stabilize. To that end, a local group (Duluth Monarch Buddies) was giving away milkweed seeds. Milkweed plants and other butterfly-friendly plants were available for sale.
They were also encouraging people to sign up to be monarch larva (caterpillar) monitors. The Monarch Larva Monitoring Project is a citizen science effort where volunteers track how many monarch eggs and caterpillars are in a local milkweed patch. How I would have loved to do this when I was a child! Heck, I intend to do it now. Monitors visit their sites once a week and enter observations onto a data sheet. The goal is to better understand the health of local monarch populations and how they change over time.
I picked up a packet of milkweed seeds. I can’t wait to plant them and do my small part to save the monarchs. Take that, Boy Who Kills Caterpillars!