Monday, September 15, 2014

Marsha Stanley: Monarchs And The Power Of One

image (2)My friend Theresa Mitrovitz from Tupper Lake has a small marvel in her yard this week which, if replicated in thousands more backyards, could help save the Eastern migration of the monarch butterfly. I hounded Teresa and her husband John into joining, a non-profit for which I volunteer, and soon after Theresa jumped with enthusiasm to help with the organization’s project to conserve Monarchs and the milkweed so crucial to their lifecycle.

For twenty years Monarch numbers have been declining steeply. Last year no monarch butterflies were reported in the Adirondacks, and none were sighted in the annual butterfly count at Lake Placid. This year Monarchs have shown signs of a comeback in the North Country and elsewhere, but they have a tough period ahead if they are to continue their age-old flight back and forth to Mexico where they winter.

Theresa collected milkweed seed pods last fall and tediously separted thousands of the tiny seeds from their fairy-wing fluff, planted the seeds in her yard, and gave seedlings and thousands of seeds to to distribute. She and John dropped off Monarch educational brochures with seed packets to faraway places in the park. (There was great demand in Wanakena.)

image (1)Recently Theresa sent me the photos which accompany this article, showing monarch caterpillars chomping on milkweed in her yard on September 1. If these caterpillars survive to become butterflies they will be members of a special generation. This final, late-summer cohort was once called the Methuselah generation. Scientists have since abandoned that vivid term for the blander but more politically correct moniker ”migratory generation” or “super generation.” Perhaps they made the change because so few folks these days know enough Bible stories to recognize Methuselah as the reputed oldest man. But whatever the name, this years last generation of monarchs in the northern U.S. and southern Canada, for reasons still unknown to scientists, will have an extended lifespan of nine months or more, while all the earlier generations only live about three weeks.

Hopefully the caterpillars in Teresa’s backyard will make their way to a high mountain range west of Mexico City, survive the winter, and return to the U.S. next spring to begin the migratory cycle once again. Wrap your mind around this: If one of the pictured butterflies is a female who makes it to Mexico and then back to Texas next March or April, she will have the capacity to lay up to 300 eggs, as will each of her daughters and granddaughters and on and on as they migrate northward following the emerging milkweed plants. That is thousands and thousands of monarchs, in what I like to think of as Theresa’s line.

Such is the power of one person. If monarchs are to make it though, they will needs thousands more friends like Theresa. This is especially true in the Midwest, where herbicides sprayed on GMO crops have virtually wiped out the milkweed. You can use the internet to inspire all those new Theresas. Email this article to everyone you know in the crucial states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and the entire Midwest. The power of one, a million times over. A million and one times over if you plant some milkweed too.

Photo: Theresa Mitrowitz photographed these two Monarch caterpillars on milkweed which she planted from seed she gathered last fall from dried milkweed pods.

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Marsha Stanley

Marsha Stanley is a former reporter for the Rochester Times Union, where she covered government and did investigative reporting. She freelanced for many years for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, writing feature stories for the Sunday magazine. She holds a bachelor of journalism from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Marsha is a founding member and on the board of

13 Responses

  1. I have seen five in the last two weeks in the Keene area. I seriously urge everyone to discourage their Towns from cutting the grass along the roads, as they are taking out milkweed by the droves. They cut our road in mid-August just as the Monarchs were emerging and really could have done it a lot later. Thank you Marsha for leading the efforts to revitalize them.

  2. Eileen Mansfield says:

    Excellent article. Thank you Theresa and Marsha. I’ll pass this info along.

  3. Barbara Marasco says:

    Great article….I saw one monarch on my butterfly bush last week on Upper Saranac Lake. Thanks to Theresa and Marsha.

  4. Tom Vawter says:

    Thanks for the interesting and helpful article. I would, however, take issue with a couple of points. First, there were a few monarchs who made it to the ADKs last year. I counted 5 separate animals over the summer in the Old Forge area. (Yes, the Adirondacks don’t lie just within that triangle between Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Lake George!) but the point is well taken that there are fewrer and fewer.

    We’ve seen more this summer than last, and counted a dozen or more late-instar larvae on wild common milkweed at the base of the Mt. McCEy ski area. My second point with regard to the article is that wd milkweed is abundant in much of the settled area of the ADKs, and adding a few hand-cultured plants can be expected to do little to supplement monarch foodplant abundance. A more productive strategy would be to convince one’s local highway department, not to mow roadsides with milkweed until after the bulk of the south-migratory generation has emerged.

  5. James Fox Jim Fox says:

    Last summer I picked a lots of milkweed pods, took out the seeds, and planted them in sunny spots on our lot. None of them came up. Perhaps I should have waited until the pods had dried & burst? Must the seeds be separated from the fluff? Are milkweeds annuals, perennials or biennials; i.e., can the plants be transplanted?

    • Sharon Hill says:

      Jim, there are all types of milkweed (annual and pereniial) but most likely you have the perenial type. I’m not sure what you did wrong, but I purchased 2 milkweed plants 2 years ago and they have multiplied by underground runners and are over 6 ft tall. I have a different type of milkweed that is only 3 ft tall and has very narrow leaves — it does not multiple by runners and seems to be very fragile (in comparison). The monarchs seem to like both types. I will say milkweed is not real happy to be transplanted.

    • Theresa Mitrowitz says:

      Hi Jim, I am not sure when you picked your seed, but the seeds do need to go through vernalization (cold). I have picked in the fall and put them in the garage, then started them in the Spring to give away. I have also picked up pods after the snow has melted. Monarch Watch is a very good web sight to look up information.

  6. Ernest Williams says:

    Although the Adks haven’t historically been an area of high monarch reproduction, a lot of milkweed grows in this region. Tom is right that we have abundant milkweeds (this isn’t an area of intensive industrial agriculture). The best thing we can do here locally is to reduce roadside mowing. A single mowing once in July is fine (regrowing milkweeds are more attractive to ovipositing females than uncut milkweeds), but don’t mow from Aug 1 onward to avoid killing eggs and larvae. And keep mowing only 10 feet or so of pavement; there is no need for safety to mow farther from road edges, and there is harm to pollinators from loss of habita.
    But the real value of Marsha’s column is that it is being carried electronically far beyond the Adks, where planting of milkweeds will have a greater effect.

  7. Sad situation. I remember hordes of monarchs in the fields as a child. On a positive note I did see several monarchs last year (Wilmington), one today and a female laying eggs in the milkweed in my back yard.

  8. Norm says:

    Saw one for the first time last week at Fern Lake in Black Brook. Seeing a lone Monarch made me realize that they had disappeared. Hopefully they will return again.

  9. Michele humphrey says:

    I saw only 2 monarchs this year in the Bolton area. I’ve been letting my milkweed grow wherever it wants in my yard in Diamond Point for 15 years. This year I was stunned to see 1 monarch caterpillar on one of my plants. I checked later and didn’t see it. I hope it survived.

  10. Rose Anne Weissel says:

    My husband and I saw Monarchs flying south along the east shore of Lake George on Sept 21. We saw over 50 before we got tired of counting…at one point they were coming past us at the rate of one a minute! Several stopped to feed on the red clover along the roadside. I am so glad I skipped that late summer mowing!
    I have read that New England Asters provide another welcome food source for them during migration as well as looking good in the yard.

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