Awe, wonder of monarch butterflies
- Published: September 5, 2019
The butterfly’s loping flight
carries it through the country of the leaves
delicately, and well enough to get it
where it wants to go …
—Mary Oliver, “One or Two Things”
You’ve seen them on the bike path. In the Women’s Park. In your backyard. Orange and black, striking as flying kaleidoscopes or winged panes of stained glass. Their “loping flight” is arguably more graceful — more loping — than that of other butterflies. They flit and glide. The moment they catch your eye, they’re gone.
“Monarchs are an integral part of the summer garden,” local organic garden designer Nadia Malarkey observed recently.
Monarchs are perhaps the most iconic of North America’s native butterflies. Migrating into Ohio beginning in late May, some continue the journey further north, but others spend the summer here, laying eggs and hatching out caterpillars that will, in turn, become the next generation of butterflies.
Through the summer, the monarch butterfly population builds as two to three generations hatch out, mature and reproduce. The last generation, emerging in late August through September, will set out for a mountainous region in west-central Mexico, the monarch’s overwintering ground.
“I love how monarchs catch the wind and go up, up — as high as possible,” local resident Amy Magnus observed.
“They’re always looking for that lift,” she added.
Monarchs put that lift to good use. They migrate the furthest of any butterfly in the world — our local monarchs, for example, will complete a journey of over 2,000 miles to reach their overwintering ground in early November, just in time for Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. In connection with that holiday, native villagers in the region welcome the vast orange plumes of monarchs as the souls of ancestors, returning for an annual visit.
From November to March, monarchs take shelter in the region’s misty fir-clad mountains. For centuries or millennia — scientists aren’t quite sure — these high-altitude oyamel trees have provided just the right environment for monarchs’ survival during the northern hemisphere’s winter months. Come March, the monarchs migrate north again to feed and breed. These individuals won’t make it back to Ohio, but the next generation, or the next, will.
And the cycle is set in motion again, with the great-grandchildren of the overwintering generation eventually finding their way back from Ohio, as if by ancestral memory, to the very same mountains.
Monarchs’ intricate lifecycle and epic migration is a marvel to some local residents.
“The whole thing is just overwhelmingly amazing,” Lisa Wolters, a longtime monarch enthusiast, said this week.
Wolters has been observing and rearing monarchs since she was a child, an effort that is both a pleasure and a service to a useful, beautiful and increasingly vulnerable species.
Monarchs — beloved locally and beyond — are dying off in enormous numbers. Experts estimate that monarch populations nationwide have declined 90 percent in the past 20 years, according to a fact sheet from The Ohio State University.
A new study released this summer shows that butterflies in Ohio have declined by a third over the past two decades, with monarchs declining at an even faster rate. The study uses data collected in one of the country’s largest butterfly-monitoring projects, conducted by citizen scientists at more than 100 sites around Ohio, including several sites near Dayton.
The new study, published in July in the journal “PLOS One,” identifies three main culprits: habitat destruction and loss, climate change and the use of pesticides and herbicides in agriculture.
These factors are affecting monarchs’ overwintering grounds — logging and severe climate events have shrunk these grounds dramatically in recent years — as well as their summer and migration ranges.
In Ohio, pesticide and herbicide use are directly responsible for monarch declines, according to the study. The agricultural industry in the state has substantially increased its use of both kinds of chemicals in recent years.
For example, corn and soybean seeds are now coated with pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which have been shown to harm and kill butterflies and other pollinators.
“In the United Kingdom and California, neonicotinoids are associated with butterfly declines and hinder butterfly larval development,” the study notes.
And the agricultural industry has increased its use of the herbicide glyphosate, known as Roundup, to six times the rate of 20 years ago. Glyphosate kills “weeds” such as milkweed, which is essential for monarch survival.
“Milkweed losses, attributed to increased glyphosate use in the Midwest, contribute to declines in monarch butterfly abundance,” according to the study.
Monarchs lay their eggs exclusively on native milkweed plants, such as the tall stands of common milkweed growing locally in the Women’s Park or along North High Street at the Bahá’í Center. Milkweed of the genus Asclepias is the only food eaten by monarch caterpillars, who munch their way from teeny-tiny to plumply finger-sized in a matter of two weeks, then enter a pupal stage, emerging in another 10 to 14 days as butterflies.
Loss of nectar-producing plants, particularly those flowering in late summer when monarchs begin their southern migration, is another threat to these butterflies, experts say.
Rearing monarchs locally
But there are steps that villagers can take, right in their own back yards.
Just ask Wolters, one of a handful of villagers who are rearing monarchs — bringing the eggs or small caterpillars into wire-mesh boxes to try to buffer them from predators, and maximize their chances of survival. Wolters comes from a family of monarch lovers.
“My mom got into it when we were kids,” she said. “It’s become a family thing.”
Wolters has continued the practice as an adult, time and other factors permitting. While a house project prevented her from rearing monarchs this summer, she had a busy and active monarch operation last summer — and even got her neighbors, Amy Magnus and Magnus’ daughter, Zan, involved.
“It started with a pet-sitting, or monarch-sitting, gig for my daughter,” Magnus explained last week. “But then I got involved, too.”
Magnus described the thrill of finding tiny, striated monarch eggs or just-hatched black-headed caterpillars on milkweed plants in her back yard, then transferring them to the rearing boxes.
That’s when the real work — the feeding — begins.
“They’re pretty hungry,” Magnus said. “Once they get big, they eat about a leaf a day.”
Caring for caterpillars is mainly a matter of feeding them fresh milkweed leaves every day. It’s not hard work, but it does require consistency.
“You can’t go away for the weekend — you have to get a babysitter,” Wolters said.
As this reporter can attest — having reared monarchs for the last two summers — the practice is oddly compelling.
That’s mainly because of the charisma of the species. While non-stop eating may not sound like a worthy spectator sport, monarch caterpillars eat with a diligence and ferocity that inspires. And they grow with gusto, too, lengthening and fattening almost visibly, moment to moment.
Monarch caterpillars go through five growth phases, known as “instars.” Once they reach the fifth instar, they find a suitable surface, make a little silk pad, then attach themselves to it, hanging upside down in a “J” shape.
“It’s so exciting when they make that little ‘J,’” Wolters said.
If all goes well, the upside-down caterpillar will enter its next phase of life after about 12 hours. The caterpillar will writhe and contract, casting off its striped skin and becoming a shiny green, crunched-down accordion.
“It looks as if it’s shrugging on a sweater,” Magnus observed.
In a matter of minutes, the former caterpillar hardens into a chrysalis, a bright green capsule edged and dotted in gold.
“It’s really stunning, with this gold ‘crown’ and gold dots,” Magnus said.
Inside the chrysalis, the monarch dissolves from its former state, retaining just a few features of its caterpillar body organization, and reshapes itself into a whole new organism — a butterfly.
If and when it emerges successfully from chrysalis, up to two weeks later, the monarch butterfly is beautifully intact. It expands and dries its wings, then, often without warning, flies or floats away.
Those who’ve witnessed the process report a sense of awe and wonder.
“Watching the lifecycle, how it changes so drastically — it’s just incredible,” Wolters said.
Magnus described a rich set of metaphysical reflections inspired by the profound changes monarchs undergo.
“You start wondering, ‘Who am I or what is the sentient being that I am?’” she said.
“There’s the wonderful conundrum about what it is to be,” she added. “Monarchs evoke this question and don’t quite answer it.”
Monarch conservation groups such as the University of Kansas’ Monarch Watch, monarchwatch.org, provide guidance for those who want to learn how to responsibly rear monarchs at home. But there are other ways to help monarchs.
Creating bio-diverse, seasonally layered gardens is essential to supporting native butterflies and other pollinator species, according to local gardener Malarkey.
“Give them a home and a space,” she said.
For monarchs specifically, Malarkey recommends planting at least three kinds of native milkweed, as well as a variety of food sources for mature butterflies. Plants such as liatris, hoary vervain, culver’s root, echinacea, Joe Pye weed and wild bergamot (the pale lavender variety of bee balm), as well as the native flowering shrub buttonbush, are all good choices to nourish monarchs through the summer, she said.
Fall-blooming plants are also important. Malarkey recommends varieties of aster, non-aggressive species of goldenrod and a plant called false boneset.
“The more bio-diverse a landscape is, the healthier it is,” she said.
If your yard is especially small, she recommends collaborating with neighbors to create a wider patch. Larger areas of habitat do more to support monarchs and other species, she said.
Perhaps her strongest recommendation is to cease using pesticides and herbicides, and avoid plants grown from seeds treated with neonicotinoids.
“That’s really the first thing,” Malarkey said. “These synthetic chemicals cause problems even in sub-lethal doses.”
In her own garden design practice, she does not use such chemicals.
“There’s no way it’s not going to come home,” she said of the detrimental effects of dousing plants with pesticides and herbicides.
In creating bio-diverse gardens, Malarkey sees more at stake than saving a single enchanting species. Rather, gardening with an ecological mindset touches on the deepest issues of being alive on Earth at this moment in time.
“What is my role on this planet? Who am I? What is my relationship with the natural world? These are the kinds of questions people are asking,” she said.
Monarchs may not have the answers. Then again — as you watch them transform and imagine their mysterious 2,000-plus mile flight — you may decide this regal species does.