Today, I feel compelled to write about monarch conservation. We are in the height of monarch breeding season here in the midwest, and I am seeing post after post on social media about these amazing creatures. In fact, earlier this week, I found four monarch eggs on the common milkweed patch at my house.
No caterpillars, no chewed leaves, just the eggs. I brought them in, each resting on the leaf where they were laid, and started my summer season of raising monarchs. However, I have decided that this season will be a little different than the past 16 years that I have done this. Here’s why…….
Sixteen Years of Monarch Education and Conservation
Over those 16 years, I have become known by some in my community as a Monarch conservation expert. No, I am not an entomologist or a Lepidoptera specialist or even a conservation biologist. I became a monarch conservationist as a lay person when, just like many involved now. I found it an inspiring and interesting way to introduce my own boys and countless (hundreds) other students and adults to some amazing life cycle science that was occurring right in our own yards.
However, 17 years ago, my interest in monarchs led me in the direction of where I finally ended up this winter – with an official position in a local land trust as an educator. Many of my past summers have been spent educating about monarchs, and that is why I am now slightly veering of this path of past predictability.
The effort to save monarchs as an iconic, and some will say, indicator species, has mushroomed into a bandwagon effect, with everyone and their grandmother (please excuse the expression), jumping on to raise and save these beautiful and amazing insects. But, as I look back to last summer, where I raised the highest number of monarch butterflies from my own gardens, I now consider the wisdom in doing so. Last year, I raised a total of 90 butterflies. Seventy-seven of those were late in the season and tagged by me between August 25th and October 10th with stickers provided by Monarch Watch in an effort to help document the migrational process. Even though I had two tags recovered in Mexico the year before, I decided that last year I raised too many Monarchs.
Over the years, I have experienced the joy in watching the metamorphosis take place, the eclosure of the adult butterfly, the rapid increase in size of the larva, and the amazing tiny creature that hatches from an eggshell the size of a pin head, only to eat the very thing from where he came out. I captured it all on video and with photographs. There is much to be taken with during this process. Certainly, amazement, awe, inspiration, respect for nature and natural processes all played a role in my involvement. But, there is also a lot to learn, if it is taught. If not, there is a lot to misunderstand, as well. And, it is that misunderstanding of the bandwaggon masses, that causes me to have pause. Recently, in my role as an environmental educator, I have become more acutely aware of the misunderstandings that exist regarding the monarch life cycle, and more importantly, the misguided attempts to conserve this species.
Thus, my compulsion about writing today. There are several thoughts I have which I want to share. 1) Planting habitat – milkweed and native nectar flowers are one of the best ways you can really help the monarch – and other pollinators survive. As I recently explained to a prairie enthusiast, planting milkweed and other host plants allows people to feel they are doing something to help. There is nothing wrong or damaging in this approach. If you want to help, planting native habitat is one positive way to do it. 2) Raising monarchs must be done on a limited basis. Raising this butterfly in masses, and this doesn’t mean only by the 100’s or 1,000’s that some very misguided individuals are doing, it also means raping the milkweed of any and all eggs or caterpillars you come across in your yard or field, must stop. I fear what the true scientists are warning against with this approach and that is disease is being spread due to the un-natural like conditions the monarchs are exposed to in our containers.
I have never spoken much about the failures I have had raising monarchs. There have been some. Interestingly enough, the failures have occurred only in the last few years. Three years ago, I had a problem with OE infection, and pupa being parasitized with wasps and tachnid flies. I had too many (13) pupating at the same time. Not good. This was a lesson for me to STOP what I was doing. My container was small and although I kept it scrupulously clean each day, disease occurred. This was about the same time I heard Dr. Karen Oberhauser speak at our state Master Gardener conference, where I also was a presenter. Dr. Oberhauser was presented with the question of whether or not we (as lay people) should be raising monarchs. Her response? It is fine, within reason. Raising a FEW for enjoyment, educational purposes, or outreach is fine. Raising en masse, is not! Please take some time to review the sentiments of Monarch Joint Venture on the practice of raising monarchs. It echoes Dr. Oberhauser’s thoughts and was possibly written when she was still with that organization. 3) If you are raising monarchs with your children, and doing it with more than a couple of larva at a time, you must be ready to “explain” when things do not go as planned. Eggs disappear. Larva die. Pupa do not complete metamorphosis. Wasps hatch from the pupa. Butterflies are born deformed. It is all possible. Be ready! Children want answers when this happens.
Fortunately, none of these things happened when my boys were young and we raised 10-20 monarchs over the course of the whole season. My first experience with this dismay and feeling of failure was when a para-educator at our elementary school called me one summer morning in hysterics because her butterfly had come out of the chrysalis and never straightened its wings. It died. She couldn’t handle it. Although she had me speak to her Lioness Group (service organization) about monarch conservation since that time, I am almost sure she has not tried to raise them again. Just be ready. Unfortunately, nature can be a cruel teacher, especially if we try to control her.
Truly, the experience of raising this butterfly and my involvement in their conservation over the last 16 years, led be to going back to school well into middle age. I became an environmental educator so that I could encourage others to love our earth and all of the amazing things it offers us. As such, I obtained an advanced degree in the field to make sure my passion was also credible. In addition, I bring personal experience, love for this species and its conservation, and an extreme amount of time spent studying information related to all aspects of the monarch life cycle, its habitat, and the challenges posed by both. I know, more than most, because I learned – over sixteen years! Not overnight – not as part of a huge movement to “grow monarchs.”
Does this mean I am going to stop my efforts with monarch conservation? Absolutely not! But, after realizing I have tens of thousands of photographs, video, and many pieces of educational materials regarding this species, it also means that I must model a responsible approach to help them reach a sustainable existence. My focus will be to educate as wide an audience as possible, in as many places as possible, much like I have been doing for the last five years. Solid, clear information, about how individuals, communities, and businesses can assist all pollinators and their habitats is much needed. This is where I will focus my efforts. Yes, I will raise a few monarchs. I have three tiny caterpillars (stage 1 instar) hatched from eggs, now. Yes, I will tag monarchs again this fall. But, I am hoping to provide an educational session on how to tag and what other efforts can be made as a citizen scientist (which is also a great enrichment activity for kids) to contribute to the scientific knowledge base without causing unintentional harm.
My husband referred to me as a “Maverick” this morning. Per Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, a maverick is an “independent individual who does not go along with a group or party.” Yes. I guess I am. I do not want to be part of the bandwagon of people indiscriminately raising monarchs. I have always raised them for educational purposes in small numbers, and now my numbers will be even smaller, intentionally. My efforts are better spent educating on the subject and creating habitat than witnessing the amazing life cycle over and over again. It is the best way that I can be sure I “do no harm.” After all, that is what one does when you love something!