2018-08-30 / Nature

Saving the Monarch Butterfly

By Charles Avenengo


Lily Herberger, Newport Tree Conservancy’s Arboreta coordinator, examines an adult monarch that emerged from its chrysalis, moments earlier, during a public demonstration at Rogers High School last month. Looking on is fellow milkweed grower Jack Booth. (Photo by Jed Wilcox) Lily Herberger, Newport Tree Conservancy’s Arboreta coordinator, examines an adult monarch that emerged from its chrysalis, moments earlier, during a public demonstration at Rogers High School last month. Looking on is fellow milkweed grower Jack Booth. (Photo by Jed Wilcox) The fall migration is on. Southbound birds are beginning to appear at local hotspots in profusion. Included with this migration are species of butterflies, including the familiar monarch butterfly. Currently, at any moment during a sunny day, you might see the orange and-black butterfly winging its way thousands of miles south towards the Mexican highlands.

One of North America’s most iconic animals, most people recognize the monarch butterfly. A fascinating history adds to its allure. The migrants we see today are heading toward one of a dozen groves of fir trees high in the Sierra Madre Mountains of the Mexican state of Michoacan.

Flying thousands of miles in these mountains, where the monarchs will spend the winter in a state of torpor nearly two miles above sea level, is a remarkable achievement. But they will then reverse this migration in spring and head north to spread out across the North American continent.

Researchers claim this succession will take five generations (the cycle was formerly believed to be three generations). After breeding, the adults die. Therefore, the monarchs we currently see are migrating to a place they have never been before, not bad for an insect whose brain is no larger than a pinhead.

In recent years, the monarch’s numbers have been declining. A combination of devastating logging practices in the Mexican mountains has led to deforestation that reduces available wintering terrain, and harmful agricultural practices in North America have also been detrimental.

Here, the issue has been the liberal use of pesticides that have killed off much of the native milkweed plant. Milkweed is the only plant upon which monarchs will lay their eggs, and feed on, refueling while undergoing their lengthy migrations.

The decline is staggering. Because the butterflies’ essential habitat is getting whacked on both ends, studies show that in the past decade the monarchs arriving in Mexico have dropped from 550 million to 33 million. The total area of their wintering roosts is now five acres, the size of a shopping mall parking lot.

Observers in recent years have bemoaned the lack of monarchs.

This year, however, locally, things seem to be brightening up a little, with healthy numbers of monarchs seemingly everywhere. One reason for this resurgence can be attributed to a small cadre of concerned citizens.

Following a national movement, this group has planted milkweed, thus offering the beleaguered butterflies additional opportunities to feed and lay their eggs. Spearheaded by the Newport Tree Conservancy’s staff horticulturist Kristyn Woodland, the cultivating of milkweed on Aquidneck Island is on the upswing.

“I started the live milkweed plant routine last year,” said Woodland, who has been active with Newport’s gardens and trees for decades. “People are doing this all over the country.”

During a public demonstration last month at the “Tree House” at Rogers High School, Woodland and her colleagues exhibited the fruits of their efforts. Various phases of monarch butterflies were on display for a public demonstration. These included hand-reared eggs, caterpillars and pupae, including one that emerged from its chrysalis as a “newborn” adult during the actual presentation.

The Tree House, a structure recently erected in collaboration with the Newport Tree Society, is part of an innovative program at the high school called the "Newport Project." The program enables students to immerse themselves in various fields across the city. In addition to raising milkweed and rearing the monarchs, students are also nurturing more than 50 species of trees that will someday be planted in Newport.

Meanwhile, the milkweed cultivators have their work cut out for them. The U.S. Geological Survey recently indicated that 1.8 billion milkweed stems need to be planted in order to return monarchs to a sustainable population size.

But don’t tell this to Woodland and her small band of milkweed planters. After all, an equally small and defiant group once rebelliously poured tea into Boston Harbor, and look at the end result.

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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