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Between the Rows: A passion for monarch butterflies

  • Courtesy St. Lynn’s PressA monarch cluster

  • Courtesy St. Lynn’s PressA beautiful monarch caterpillar

  • Courtesy St. Lynn’s Press

  • Courtesy St. Lynn’s PressThis monarch butterfly has been tagged.

  • Pat Leuchtman



For The Recorder
Friday, August 25, 2017

Kylee Baumle can date the beginning of her passion for monarch butterflies to September 17, 2006, the day she found a tattered Monarch butterfly with a tiny sticker on its wing in the field where the United Flight 93 Memorial stands. Most of us remember with horror, and pride, the passengers and crew of that flight that crashed on September 11, 2001. The sticker listed the monarchwatch.org website, a phone number and a set of three numbers.

Baumle went to Monarch Watch and reported finding the tagged monarch. The website also gave her information about the amazing monarch migration, something she knew nothing about. She then set out to learn all she could about the very familiar Monarch butterfly – and then wrote a comprehensive book simply named The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. Knowing that the monarch population has declined by 90% in only 20 years Baumle encourages us to become citizen scientists and describes the many ways we can help save this beautiful butterfly.

The Monarch is not a big book, but it is comprehensive and beautifully and clearly illustrated with photographs, many of them taken by Baumle herself. She gives a detailed description of a monarch’s life cycle beginning with the tiny, pin-head size- egg laid on the underside of a milkweed leaf. I had to learn some knew vocabulary to understand the monarch’s different life stages. The egg develops over 3-5 days and becomes a tiny caterpillar. This caterpillar has an exoskeleton which cannot stretch very much so it molts five times. Each stage between the molts is called an instar. Baumle describes this process and the caterpillar anatomy in fascinating detail.

Within two weeks the caterpillar is ready to pupate, forming the beautiful green chrysalis with its golden dots. The final molt reveals the chrysalis. Inside the chrysalis the caterpillar dissolves and the butterfly parts which had been waiting, develop over about 2 weeks. The hatching process ends with the butterfly hanging on to the transparent chrysalis while it dries and is finally able to fly. This process can take about four hours. This amazing process is described in detail with clear photographs of the different stages.

Most of us are not familiar with this part of a butterfly’s life. We just know that the caterpillars need to eat milkweed, and the adult butterfly needs to eat and goes looking for nectar plants, including milkweed flowers and other plants like bee balm, coneflowers, goldenrod, Joe Pye weed, liatris, coreopsis, Mexican sunflower, yarrow and zinnias.

What I never gave any thought to is monarch sex. There are male and female monarchs and they mate quite soon after leaving the chrysalis. Males and females will both mate with several partners. Summer generations of monarch will only live between two and six weeks, so they need to get on with the process of procreation very fast. Besides finding nectar the female will be busy locating a place to lay her eggs. She prefers to lay one egg on each plant, ensuring that her progeny have plenty of food. Since she will lay about 400-500 eggs she will be busy.

There can be three summer generations of summer monarchs but the “Methusalah” generation, the migrating generation will live for about eight months. The great migration is from the eastern United States to Mexico, although there are monarchs who live and overwinter in California. It is hard to understand why the population has declined so rapidly, but habitat destruction in the U.S. and in Mexico plays some part, as does the use of pesticides. Mexico now has several protective monarch sanctuaries.

Baumle does more than describe the biology of monarchs, and the threats. She gives us ways to support the monarch by planting milkweed and other pollinator plants, and urging our mayors to take the Monarch Mayor’s Pledge, I can tell you that locally the Energy Park in Greenfield is devoted to providing milkweeds and other pollinator plants for Monarchs as well as other pollinators. She also provides a list of informative websites, films and books. Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavior is on her list, a “heady exploration of climate change” and the discovery of an Appalachian forest valley shimmering with monarchs. This is the suspenseful story of catastrophe and denial seen through the eyes of Kingsolver’s heroine, Dellarobia. I highly recommend it.

There were a very few years in the 80s when August brought great clouds of monarchs to our Heath field overrun with mint plants that the butterflies found delicious. Then one year they stopped coming. Nowadays we get all excited to see one or two of the easily identifiable monarchs in our garden. We are now aware of the monarch’s need for protection; Baumle’s book gives us multiple ways to provide that protection.

y husband and I went online to check a couple of facts that the Monarch book did not fully explain. We found a governtment (NOAA) youtube that gives a good and clear description of the monarchs’ migration - to Mexico and then back all the way to NEngland. bit.ly/2xpzyVy

Pat Leuchtman has written and gardened since 1980. She lives in Greenfield. Readers can leave comments at her website:

www.commonweeder.com.