Bay Journal

Where have all the monarchs gone?

What happened to the butterflies?

  • By Rona Kobell on September 19, 2013

Last year, my daughter went through a major butterfly phase. We read lots of books about monarchs, those spectacular butterflies that flutter around these parts in the late summer and early fall. 

We saw a film at the Maryland Science Center, which I highly recommend, called Flight of the Butterflies. 

In it, we learned about how Canadian scientist Dr. Fred Urquhart chased monarchs for 40 years, trying to figure out where they flew and how they got there. He devised a system of tagging the butterflies, using teams of citizen scientists, and found monarch nirvana in Mexico, where millions of the spectacular creatures hung upside down on trees.

Maya, then 7, decided she absolutely had to tag a butterfly. Many nature centers had tagging programs, but they were all filled. Apparently, my daughter wasn't the only kid who was crazy about butterflies. I found a place in Mount Airy, 40 miles away, and we drove out there for a tagging program. But we didn't get to tag a monarch. It was too late in the season, the naturalist explained.

This year, I wasn't taking any chances. I researched online when the monarchs would be in our area, and I signed up for a program four months in advance at Cromwell Valley. But when we got there for the tagging program in late August, naturalist Kathy Kadow told us we would likely be disappointed.

Not only did Cromwell Valley have no monarchs, she said, but none of the other nature centers did, either. The reason: the main food of the monarch caterpillars, milkweed, is disappearing. Farmers can't afford to leave milkweed in their fields, not when corn is pushing $10 a bushel. So they're planting crops and plowing up the milkweed. Monarchs can't make the journey across the Great Lakes and into Texas and later Mexico without this crucial plant. And, unfortunately, monarchs don't eat anything else. Viceroys, tiger swallowtails, cabbagespots - we had all those in our yard, and they seemed happy to sip nectar from all manner of flowers. But monarchs hadn't evolved that way. Once, they loved the Chesapeake for his plentiful food sources. Now, even in their high season, it was hard to find even one.

We looked for an hour, and found only one monarch to tag. But more importantly, Kadow helped us find butterfly eggs. We took four sets home in plastic ziploc bags. We grabbed some milkweed leaves from next to the road leading into the park and took them home.

I was not optimistic. We have raised mealworms, ladybugs and other small animals here with mixed success. We checked on the bags every day. Three of the bags seemed to have nothing in them but mold. But in one, we could see some small holes. About a week later, I saw a small caterpillar.

I told my daughter we could do homework later, but we had to get to the garden store right away for milkweed. We got there, and they were out. I got out the phone and called around until I found a place. Then, I asked my husband to watch our two-year-old so we could go to the garden store.

"I can't," he said. "I have back-to-school night."

"This is a caterpillar we're talking about," I nearly shouted. Even Maya thought her mother was losing it.

And so, at 8:45 p.m. on a Tuesday, we pulled up to the garden store where I had reserved our milkweed.

"Is this for a school project?" the woman asked.

"No," I said. Because it's completely normal to show up at a garden store 15 minutes after bedtime JUST FOR FUN.

She gave me the milkweed at half-price anyway, explaining it was past its prime.

The next day, school closed two hours early because it was so hot. Still, I told Maya, we had to plant our milkweed. The caterpillar was going to be finished with his Cromwell Valley vittles before too long.

Now, a week later, we have a milkweed garden. We are in regular email contact with Kadow on the care and feeding of Saige Stripey Caterpillar. Kadow wants to come over and tag her once she metamorphoses.

We are delighted to watch Saige eat. Like the Eric Carle book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, she can put it away. We take fresh leaves and put them into her catcher, and I clean out her poop. At first, we did this every other day, but now we do it every 3 or 4 hours.

My daughter has remarked that I have more invested in this caterpillar than is normal or appropriate. I think she's right. Why do I care about it so much? I guess because there are so many problems in the natural world that we cannot control. We can't put more red knot birds in the sky, or more crabs in the sea. If we lived on the water, we could plant oysters, but we don't. But raising a caterpillar that will turn into a butterfly and find a mate and make more butterflies? That I can do. It's the least we can do. And when that monarch flies away, its tag affixed to its wing, we will know that we are contributing to a cycle of nature that is older than time, and will continue long after we are not here anymore to see it.

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Rona Kobell

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