Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local News

May 16, 2014

Seminar tackles ways to save the monarch butterflies

ASHLAND — When members of the Southern Hills Garden Club talk about monarch butterflies, they struggle helplessly to find the right words, then shrug their shoulders and say, “It’s mystical.”

They’re trying to describe the visual appeal of the wings, flame-colored with crisp black veins and white spots accenting their black borders.

But they also mean the jade-green chrysalis and the transformation from caterpillar crawling fatly on a leaf to butterfly floating on the breeze.

A few have been to central Mexico, where monarch butterflies migrate every year, congregating in such massive numbers they coat entire forests like whispering orange and black scales.

“It’s breathtaking. There are no words. It’s like seeing the Grand Canyon,” said Sheila Turner. Turner has been there, riding on horseback and then trekking on foot to one of several butterfly sanctuaries in the Michoacan district of Mexico, sanctuaries where if you stand quietly — and visitors always do when they see the orange-clad vegetation — you can hear the rustle of innumerable wings.

Turner was one of several garden club members at the Boyd County Public Library Thursday for a lunchtime seminar on the monarch. The butterflies that have captured their imaginations are disappearing, they say, largely because of human practices such as overmowing, suburban sprawl and increasing use of herbicides along with genetically engineered crops.

Club members hosted the seminar to talk about the dwindling monarch population and encourage steps to reverse the decline.

They also offered attendees a tour of their wildflower plantings at the library, plantings that provide food for monarch caterpillars and nectar for butterflies of all species.

The population decline has been steep and steady since its peak in 1995, club member Jerri Rupert said.

The key is milkweed, a family of plants found in most parts of the U.S., and the sole diet of the monarch caterpillar. There are numerous varieties, some of which are native to Northeast Kentucky.

However, in recent decades, much of the milkweed here and in other regions has been disappearing. Among the causes, Rupert said, are excessive mowing and herbicide use.

Habitat is disappearing with every new subdivision, parking lot and shopping center, she said. Increased mowing of rights of way, typically areas where the weed would thrive, destroys habitat.

Perhaps more serious, she said, is the increasing use of genetically modified crops, bred for resistance to herbicides. When fields are sprayed, the overspray drifts and milkweed often suffers the collateral damage.

The consequence of losing stands of milkweed is made clearer with an understanding of the monarch’s life cycle. Not only does it go through the typical stages of insect life — larva, pupa and adult — but the monarch also goes through four generations per year.

The first three are born, mature, go through metamorphosis, lay eggs and die. When the fourth generation metamorphoses, the butterflies head south. They also don’t immediately go into their reproductive cycle. Instead, they winter en masse in Mexico, then lay eggs and die shortly after that.

No one knows why, thus the frequent characterization of the butterflies as mystical and magical.

The decline in milkweed habitat is accompanied by a similar decline in habitat for the flowering plants that provide nectar for the butterflies, both in their migration to Mexico and their subsequent repopulation of the northern and eastern regions the following year.

Club members say there are grass-roots ways to alleviate the issue. For one, people can lobby local lawmakers to cut down on habitat depletion.

They also suggest planting milkweed and wildflower-bearing plants to draw monarchs. Although such plants aren’t commonly found in commercial nurseries, there are online sources. There are at least a few native-plant nurseries as well.

They call such wildflower plantings waystations, and say they are important for butterflies passing through on the migratory route. That is part of the mystery, they say, that butterflies will find milkweed where it is planted and lay their eggs on it.

Watching the caterpillars grow and metamorphose is a magical experience, Rupert said.

An education and conservation organization called MonarchWatch has promoted a waystation program and there are about 100 in Kentucky, Rupert said.

One of them is the club’s at the library and the other, planted by the Greenup County Master Gardeners Club, is at the McConnell House in Wurtland.

People wanting to know more about the Southern Hills club or monarch protection may email shgc@gmail.com or call club member Phyllis Hunter at (606) 922-9429.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2652.

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