Monarch on Mount Arab, photograph by Russ Hartung
Nurturing monarch butterflies from an Adirondack field
Why do we find things in nature beautiful? Bright colors? Dainty grace? Awe? It’s probably different for each of us, but I know I’m not alone in my delight at the monarch butterfly. With its wide orange-and-black wings fringed in white speckles, the monarch lurches around our Adirondack fields and gardens as if it’s not quite sure where to go first. But come near the butterfly, you’ll see it flee in expert loops and spirals, as quick as the breezes that carry it. At the end of the summer, our Eastern monarchs will head south to mountains in central Mexico. There they roost together in huge drapes until the following spring, when they fly back to their summer homes to breed.
I’ve always been a nature geek. Mom taught a pond-life class at the local botanical garden and my brother and I were her first students. We went to tidepools, scrub forests and high desert wildflower meadows around Southern California, where I grew up. In 1976, National Geographic published a cover article about the Canadian zoologist Fred Urquhart, who was recruiting volunteers for what’s now called a “citizen scientist” monarch-tagging program of individual butterflies during their fall migration. I needed no encouragement from Mom to send away for the monarch-tagging kit, which included tiny numbered stickers that you gently pressed on one of the monarch’s wings before letting it go.
I never did tag a monarch back in 1976. Never even saw one. Turned out that our house in the northern Los Angeles suburbs wasn’t on the flyway between inland breeding sites and the California coastal eucalyptus, pine and cypress trees where Western monarchs overwinter. It was some consolation that Professor Urquhart thought it might be helpful for us citizen scientists to track other butterflies too, so I put one of the tags on a swallowtail butterfly. But I was sad I didn’t get to actually and factually tag monarchs myself. I envied those kids who got to tag a monarch of their own and dream about its long sail to Mexico.
Fast-forward to 2020: I’ve now been a full-time Adirondacker for 14 years. One of the many pleasures of living here is the abundance of monarchs (Danaus plexippus) breeding in many areas of the park. The worrisome news about overall monarch population declines, however, increases every year, so in the summers of 2018 and 2019, I struck up a citizen scientist project I hoped was worthy of Professor Urquhart. Over these two summers, I fostered a total of 102 monarch eggs and caterpillars that I found in my pasture in Jay. Before I released them, I pressed a Monarch Watch data tag (available from www.monarchwatch.org) on each of their underwings.
By “fostering,” I mean offering refuge, providing a wild creature with optimal conditions for completing its life cycle. When I found monarch eggs or caterpillars on milkweed, I’d take those leaves inside. I set up every single plastic yogurt, take-out soup or Tupperware container that I had in my pantry and, to my husband’s astonishment, arranged them all over our dining room table. Then I put a damp paper towel at the bottom of each container and put the leaf with the egg or caterpillar on it among sprigs of fresh milkweed leaves.
Finally, to keep the critters from roaming away from their containers, I cut up squares of old pantyhose, pulled the square over each container’s opening, and secured the net it made with a rubber band around the rim. I made sure to stretch the pantyhose as fully as I could to let in plenty of air. I put a sawed-off chopstick under the pantyhose across the opening so that the “cats,” as some people call them, had a firm place to attach their rears when ready to transform into gold-flecked green chrysalides. To-do list every day: clean out wilted leaves and poop, add fresh milkweed, and mist them with water to keep them hydrated.
It was the ultimate DIY project of the sort I’d have done with rapture back in the ’70s. In 2018 I managed to collect 42 eggs and “cats,” of which 28 made it to winged adulthood, and in 2019 I found 60 cats and released 53 adults. That’s a 79-percent overall survival rate, well above the 10 percent of wild monarchs that survive from egg-hood to adulthood. I was pretty pleased with myself. Danaus plexippus is considered an “indicator species.” Its abundance is a good indicator of a natural area’s general health.
But then I wondered if I really was doing the right thing. Does well-intentioned human interference help a compromised species? Homo sapiens has been tampering with nature for at least 10,000 years, starting with agriculture, which hasn’t always done the environment any favors. In fact, these days there are large-scale commercial butterfly breeders who raise and sell masses of butterflies for release at weddings or graduations. Is putting captive insects into the wild monarch population OK or a bad idea?
Scientists at the University of Minnesota believe that mass release of reared butterflies from commercial butterfly breeders, however charming the spectacle might be at a special event, will not help wild monarch populations. Monarch mega-breeders are not required to test their “stock” for pathogens, so if domestically bred masses of butterflies are sick when they’re released, they can crowd in on and infect wild monarchs. What’s more, generations of reared monarchs can lose the genetic diversity that gives them resilience for their migration. Finally, releasing 20 or more monarchs at once can skew that area’s numbers for researchers and prevent realistic assessments.
There is some good news for individual citizen scientists like me, however. Monarch Joint Venture (www.monarchjointventure.org), a consortium of governmental agencies, private organizations and academic programs dedicated to preserving monarch populations, has guidelines for laypeople wanting to help monarchs responsibly. Turns out I didn’t go too far astray in my efforts these past two summers by only raising the “cats” from my pasture and providing them with what they needed to stay fed and healthy. And most important of all, I did this rearing on a small scale, and released the butterflies from the same place where I collected the eggs and caterpillars.
What I didn’t do was increase butterfly habitat in my field. The Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to invertebrate conservation, says it’s far better to nurture our monarchs by growing lots of milkweed for the larvae, and native flowers, such as Joe Pye weed, thistle, aster, beebalm, black-eyed Susans and other wildflowers, for the adult butterflies (www.nwf.org/nativeplantfinder has a comprehensive guide for the Northeast). But last summer I was having so much fun tending the monarchs that I forgot to mark off a sector for a new wildflower plot. I also neglected to tell the folks who mow our field to spare the milkweed stands along our driveway. All of it got mowed.
Maybe it’s more gratifying to raise a few pretty critters than to rethink the relationship to the natural world in more subtle, long-term ways. I think the monarch factory on my dining room table fulfilled my childhood dream, and cranking out as many butterflies as I could might relieve my sorrow about changes in the natural world. But when I migrated to the Adirondacks, I came to a store of natural riches. Like any store, however, our wild woods and open places are exhaustible. I think that being a good guest in a wild place means living lightly and sustaining lovingly as well as I can.
So here’s my plan for 2020: get a new plot in my pasture ready for milkweed and other native wildflowers, especially purple asters, which were a particular favorite of monarch butterflies in my field last summer. I figure that if I raise monarchs again, I owe them and their kinfolk food for their journey. And even if I don’t do any more monarch fostering, my field of scrappy wildflowers will provide perennial support to traveling wild monarchs and to the many other pollinators along this stretch of Adirondack flyway.
It’s a given in science, or in any endeavor, really, that we have to experiment and learn. And I’m cheered by this bon mot from the physicist Niels Bohr: “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”
I’ll never make enough mistakes to be an expert, but I’m learning. Always learning. I think Professor Urquhart would be pleased.