Columnist Elizabeth Volkmann: Monarch butterflies face uncertain future 

  • Monarch caterpillars increase 200 times in size by devouring milkweed, their one source of nourishment. ELIZABETH VOLKMANN

  • Monarch caterpillars increase 200 times in size by devouring milkweed, their one source of nourishment. ELIZABETH VOLKMANN

  • The first of 15 monarch butterflies is ready to fly during the summer. ELIZABETH VOLKMANN

  • A monarch butterfly dries its wings before release. ELIZABETH VOLKMANN

  • A monarch caterpillar prepares for its transformation into a chrysalis. ELIZABETH VOLKMANN

  • The wings of the butterfly shine through the now-clear chrysalis moments before the butterfly emerges. ELIZABETH VOLKMANN

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

For six weeks last summer I unexpectedly found myself playing the role of amateur entomologist and naturalist as I collected and raised 15 monarch caterpillars.

Humbly hatching from microscopic pearl white eggs and miraculously transforming into bright orange-and-black-winged butterflies, I was in awe. Normally I count myself lucky to chance upon one plump striped caterpillar to take home and observe.

I never tire of preparing a habitat that allows for me to watch as a voracious ground-bound insect finally settles into a motionless J-shaped position, wiggles its way into a jewel green chrysalis and finally emerges as a delicate journey-bound butterfly.

Having the opportunity to release 15 of these winged wonders from my fingertips was truly a cause for joy, but it also gave me pause. I found that with each liftoff my emotions wavered between hope and despair. Though the monarchs were heeding a migration call that has remained unchanged for centuries, the world into which they were heading was in flux and the obstacles to a successful journey were increasing by the day.

When I was growing up in the Pioneer Valley, monarch butterflies were as common as swallowtails and skipjacks. I was in elementary school when scientists encountered the elusive Mexican cloud forests that cradled resting monarchs for three months of the year. Pictures in National Geographic magazine showed butterflies by the millions weighing down the branches of 100-foot-tall oyamel fir trees. Covering the ground and filling the air, one researcher nearly disappeared behind the colorful wings that surrounded her, leaving only her radiant face in view.

The photographs underscored the awe-inspiring migration story itself and brought the marvel of the monarch to classrooms and households alike. Unforgettable to me was the fascination and passion for this phenomenon that our own science teacher, Fred Morrison, shared with us. I never looked at monarch butterflies the same way again. Watching them meander under blue skies and float through my grandmother’s flower gardens, I wondered why such a fragile insect traveled for thousands of miles to a place it had never been to before and, more importantly, how.

Migration patterns

The prized discovery of the remote overwintering site provided the answer to the question of winter destination but it also gave scientists the ability to more accurately monitor population numbers year to year. While monarchs residing west of the Rockies flock to winter locations in southern California, all eastern monarchs reliably converge upon 12 specific areas of central Mexico.

A healthy monarch population would cover 15 acres of forest and would comprise 300 million butterflies. Annual fluctuations are expected but the last time that number was reached was 2006-2007. Scientists have been noting a population decline for nearly two decades. However, three years ago headlines confirmed what reports had predicted — monarch butterfly numbers were at a historic low, sounding an alarm bell for potential extinction. In 2013-2014, only 33 million butterflies just barely covered an 1½ acres of forest.

As the only butterfly to embark on a two-way migration, monarchs are beset with challenges not once but twice on their life-cycle journey. Those that hatch in late summer are born to undertake the miraculous flight south relying on instinct and environmental cues to travel distances of up to 3,000 miles. Their task is to arrive in Mexico well-nourished and prepared to survive for three months of relative rest.

In March, when temperatures rise, thousands of butterflies collectively depart their sanctuary and dot the brilliant blue skies with black and orange wings for days. Once they reach Texas they fan out and travel north, following age-old routes to the west and east. These butterflies will never reach their place of origin but will instead lay the first eggs of the next generation. Monarch life cycles will produce three to four generations within the year before those late summer monarchs are born and the cycle begins again.

Monarchs require three key elements to survive: milkweed, nectar flowers and their overwintering forests. They are all disappearing at the hands of three main culprits: climate change, habitat loss and herbicides. As a migrating species, monarchs’ needs cannot be met by creating a single refuge area or sanctuary (with the exception of the Mexican forests, which in recent years have been provided a measure of governmental protection from deforestation). Reduce the availability of one element and the entire species suffers.

The fields, meadows and prairies that once offered monarchs their life-sustaining habitat are being devoured by sprawl, infrastructure and large-scale farming. Mass-produced and genetically engineered crops, like corn and soy, now cover nearly 200 million acres of farmland and the accompanying application of toxic herbicides render even the hardiest milkweed helpless.

Extreme weather conditions with abnormal temperatures and potent storms instantly destroy habitats and the monarchs themselves. Their daily survival is fraught, leaving the species as a whole teetering.

Hope and despair

Here is where I find myself at the crossroads of hope and despair. When faced with enormous challenges like climate change and species vulnerability, I often choose the path of despair and this past summer was no different. Every August I make treks to local sites in search of that one plump monarch caterpillar. Some years I am fortunate and others I am not. This year I returned home empty-handed but not for lack of caterpillars but rather because the milkweed plants had disappeared.

A large farming field that had always co-existed with meadow flowers and milkweed was now a pristine haying field. Exhaustive searches and several return trips resulted in the realization that the milkweed had been purposefully eradicated.

In another trip to a nearby pond, I was confronted with banks that had been cleared of native growth in order to provide a better view and easier human accessibility to the water. Casual drives around the area showed that houses were being built in fields that once were filled with wildflowers. I was not just disappointed but heartbroken.

Determined to do something, I worked more intensely on creating my quarter-acre pollinator garden in the brutal heat of a rainless August. Here and there rogue milkweed plants cropped up. Though having never attracted a monarch butterfly, I have left them there perhaps as a beacon of hope.

One afternoon, much to my surprise, I watched as a monarch did land on the milkweed. She wrapped her body around one leaf after another, leaving small white eggs. I was astounded and thrilled to have my few milkweed plants become a nursery for monarch caterpillars.

Each day I made my rounds to observe the changes, waiting for caterpillars to appear. However, as soon as one did appear it was preyed upon by a large spider. Though I would have preferred to observe the caterpillars in their natural environment I quickly realized that their role in the cycle of life may be limited to spider food.

Over the next two weeks I collected eggs and caterpillars from my six stalks of milkweed. One room of my home was transformed into a laboratory with a series of netted enclosures appropriate for each stage of monarch development. Morning, noon and night I found myself observing, sketching and noting changes. For six weeks monarch survival became my focus.

The first butterfly emerged on a warm summer’s morning and by mid-afternoon was ready for release. That same day Hurricane Harvey was changing the landscape in Texas. As the butterfly rose up above the hedges my heart soared but was also grounded in worry. Would she stand a chance against the weather coming her way? I whispered what would become my monarch mantra, “Good luck and be safe.”

The following 14 butterflies emerged at a regular pace until late September. The last butterfly, just as the first, found her way above the hedges under bright blue skies while Hurricane Maria was devastating Puerto Rico. Was a whisper of hope all I could offer?

The truth is the disappearance of the monarch will not have an irreversible impact on the environment. Monarchs are not a keystone species which is vital to the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem.

However, it is an “umbrella” species and by creating an ideal habitat for it to thrive we also provide conditions under which a multitude of species can benefit, including our disappearing bees.

I cannot think of a more captivating ambassador to draw attention to the devastating effects of climate change and environmental destruction that is happening in our own backyards nor as a reminder of what will be lost if we choose to do nothing. A world without the monarch is indeed a world less wonderful.

Details of the overwintering population numbers will be announced soon. Anecdotal reports of increased monarch sightings are perhaps a harbinger of good news to come, but even if numbers are higher, the monarchs that funnel up from the south to begin the life cycle anew will still encounter major obstacles to survival.

While waiting and hoping, I will also be planning a summer garden that is even more monarch-friendly. I will continue to educate myself on how to improve the survival chances for vulnerable insect species.

And though prone to feeling pessimistic by aspects of species loss over which I have no control, I will force myself to believe that I can make a small difference and even change the world a little bit. In fact, I have 15 winged reasons to believe this is so.

Elizabeth Volkmann, M.Ed., of Northampton, is a former early childhood educator. She currently writes for children about nature, and can be reached at volkmann@comcast.net.