Have you been in a boat on an Adirondack lake in late summer and found yourself surrounded by monarch butterflies? Or seen them massing on your flowering plants around Labor Day? Or wondered why so many were flying all around village streets in late August?
You were witness to one of nature's wonders - the start of the annual monarch butterfly migration to Mexico. The Adirondacks are on the monarch flyway. Our region holds one of the keys to their survival.
The Associated Press and major newspapers, including the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, reported last week that the number of monarch butterflies which overwintered in sanctuaries in Mexico in 2013 dropped perilously, 59 percent less than last year. Some scientists warn that unless urgent action is taken to reverse a 20-year downward trend in monarch numbers, the incredible phenomenon of monarch migration could end completely within 20 years. (The AP story is posted on the AdkAction.org website homepage Bulletin.)
A male monarch butterfly perches on a milkweed leaf.
(Photo — Carol Pasternak)
A monarch caterpillar chews milkweed.
(Photo — Carol Pasternak)
The bad news from Mexico came just as AdkAction.org was set to announce a new monarch preservation initiative in the Adirondack Park and serves to underscores its importance.
AdkAction.org has launched a program to help the threatened monarch butterfly by protecting milkweed, the perennial plant essential to monarch reproduction and to urge planting of late-blooming flowers to feed monarchs as they begin their incredible journey.
Monarchs in the Adirondacks are members of a special super-generation which lives nine months, much longer than other monarchs. Monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed leaves, and their caterpillars eat only milkweed. The caterpillars ingest a toxin from the milkweed plant, which makes them unpalatable to birds and many other predators. After two weeks, the caterpillar forms a chrysalis, and 12 days later a butterfly emerges, also protected by the milkweed toxin.
Monarchs hatched here, in Canada and elsewhere in the northeastern U.S. have evolved to live up to nine times longer than other monarchs and to make an epic journey beginning here. They stop to rest and drink nectar to fuel their flight. Millions of them complete a more than 2,000-mile flight to Mexico, where they winter in fir forests in a high-altitude mountain range.
In March, they mate and fly to the southeast U.S. They stop, lay eggs on milkweed, and die. Many of these may have traveled a total of 5,000 miles. A new generation is born and continues north, seeking fresh milkweed. Each of these northbound generations lives six to eight weeks. It takes three to four generations for monarchs to reach their home in the Adirondacks and Canada. The last generation born in the north is called the migrating generation because it lives much longer, making the entire trip in the fall to Mexico, wintering there and flying back to the U.S.
AdkAction.org believes there is much our region can do to help save the monarch butterfly migration. We plan to distribute 10,000 copies of a monarch brochure throughout the Park starting in June. Each brochure will have a Ziploc bag attached with a small amount of common milkweed seeds. These brochures with seed will be available at information desks and in racks at roadside stops, in our museums, art galleries, at public meetings, etc. We will hand them out at lake association meetings, whose members often have homes in other states. We hope they will spread the message, and milkweed planting, far and wide.
Our other efforts will include:
-We plan to collaborate with Adirondack garden clubs to pair each school in the Adirondacks with a club which will help them create a butterfly garden if they don't have one and register it as a Monarch Waystation.
-We will be contacting state and local highway departments to ask them to consider delaying their roadside mowing until mid-September, when the migrating generation has all hatched.
-We will ask volunteers to speak about this program at town board and school board open-speaker sessions.
-We will ask residents to plant milkweed on fallow land or on their septic field, a perfect place.
-We also will ask residents to plant a butterfly garden and register it as a Monarch Waystation.
-We will harvest local milkweed seed this fall (a potential free source of seed).
-Several of our members have volunteered to plant additional milkweed on their property. We will try to involve school groups in the planting.
-We hope to bring a series of summer speakers to the Adirondacks, including scientists and writers.
-We will suggest Barbara Kingsolver's new novel, "Flight Behavior," to summer reading groups
To learn more about inexpensive, simple things you can do to make sure our great-grandchildren have the joy of seeing monarchs, please visit our website, www.adkaction.org. Consider volunteering and joining AdkAction.org to help with this important work.
Marsha Stanley is an AdkAction.org board member who lives part of the year on Upper Saranac Lake.