It’s August! The monarch butterfly season is in full swing! Soon, the monarchs we see flying through our yard will be on their way to somewhere else, and it’s not just the next yard! It will be on to the next state, and the next, and the next until they reach the over wintering grounds in Central Mexico. It is a 1700 mile trip from where I live. The fact that this tiny creature that weighs about the same as paperclip can navigate this trip alone is amazing!
Of course they have some help. Flowers and gardens in parks and yards along the way provide sustenance for their trip. They stop breeding so that their energy can go into the migration. They find places to rest at night in shrubs and pines when the sun dips down. They take off again the next morning once the sun warms their tiny bodies as well as the air temperature.
But, yards and parks and fields are not contiguous anymore. There are large parts of the country that do not provide these basic monarch needs in the fall. Fields have been planted in monoculture – just corn or just soy or just wheat – and sprayed with chemicals or genetically altered. Parking lots, hotels and strip malls replace parkland and places where nature existed. New homes are built but yards are left unplanted, lacking the native wildflowers the butterflies need for their stop-overs. There are large gaps – miles and miles of gaps – in the migrational flyway for the monarchs.
Of course to aid human transportation, there are roads. Roads that were built to meet the ever expanding needs of humans. Alongside the roads are plants – and amidst the loosestrife, wild phlox, queen annes lace, thistle, goldenrod, and ditch lilies which commonly line the roads is milkweed. Monarchs depend solely on milkweed plants to sustain their life cycle.
Milkweed in August in the upper mid-west is serving multiple purposes. It is flowering, providing nectar to adult monarchs and other pollinators. It continues to serve as the ONLY food source for monarch larvae. Adult female monarchs find the plant and lay their eggs, so the caterpillars are born with food to eat soon after their eggshell is consumed. As mid-month approaches this plant will be hosting the next migrational generation of monarchs.
But, as I was reminded yesterday, there is a problem. It is also this time of year that towns and municipalities cut their roadside vegetation. What does that mean? Monarch lives are cut short! That’s what it means. Those eggs yet to hatch, those caterpillars who have not completed their five stages of growth, those chrysalises that hang so well camouflaged in nearby greenery, are all cut short by the cutting of the milkweed plants that grow along our roadsides. When that happens, when various stages of the monarch life cycle cannot access a living milkweed plant, the monarch life cycle is interrupted. We loose monarchs in development at the most critical time – right before the fall migration.
The tractors cut the roadside already.
The tractors cut the parkside, near the walking trail that winds behind our house.
Both had milkweed growing within reach of the tractor’s cutting arm.
But, the town cannot cut my hill.
In the front of our property, there is a berm that we planted in wildflowers some years ago. There is goldenrod. There are coneflowers. There is Queen Ann’s Lace. (I know, it’s invasive). But, most importantly, there is milkweed! There is common milkweed AND this morning I found several clumps of the ever elusive (for me) whorled milkweed in bloom! The berm, or hill, faces our house, not the road. It forms the outer most edge of our yard and slopes inward. We own it, not the town. We don’t cut it and won’t. The town can’t cut my hill – for obvious reasons!
I’ve been involved in monarch conservation for almost twenty years. I’ve seen the changes in our landscape. I notice the practices of the municipalities. It continues – the building, the demolishing, the cutting. Yesterday, as the town cut the vegetation along the walking path behind our house, the practice hit too close to home. There was no reason to cut. It is not a road, it was not for safety, it was not to ease walking for the path was not infringed upon prior to the cutting. It is a path not used much. It is not a destination in our town. The path was cut just because….
In my twenty years of monarch conservation, I’ve done what I can to establish habitat in my yards and others, at at least four schools, and by educating our community. I’ve planted, nurtured, and collected milkweed seeds. I’ve given seed to others and even shipped off a shoebox full to Monarch Watch in 2014. What I’ve never done is written a letter to our town about not mowing the roadsides or park edges at this time of year.
That will change this week. No, the town can’t cut my hill. But, I’d like them to stop cutting in other places – for the sake of preserving the miraculous feat of the monarch migration. I am going to write a letter advocating on behalf of the monarch’s August survival! It’s time for action…just because – it is!
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