By Rebecca Hammond
THE FERNDALE MONARCH PROJECT BEGAN IN MARCH 2015 WITH A SIMPLE GOAL: Adding milkweed to the yards and parks of Ferndale to begin replacing habitat, the loss of which has been dooming the species. At the time I tossed the idea out on the FB Ferndale Forum, with John Hardy leaping in with help and support I didn’t even know people raised monarchs indoors.
A friend shared an article with much-repeated advice: Since only ten percent of eggs laid in the wild make it to the butterfly stage, search for eggs and raise some yourself. This seemed a sound idea. And raising them turned out to be fun and gratifying, if at times nerve-wracking. Caterpillars and butterflies may look alike, but they do not act alike. Their varying behaviors drove lots of us up the wall with worry. Letting them handle their small lives on their own, assuming they knew what to do, was hard for us modern, in-control humans.
THE HOBBY GREW, with many of us almost obsessively gathering eggs and sharing them and our successes on social media. We converted others, and assumed we were doing good. Then the unthinkable happened: Two science-based organizations, The Xerces Society, and Monarch Joint Venture, rocked our world. According to them, we have actually been putting the species at risk, and haven’t even helped it.
In the wild, monarchs usually lay one egg per milkweed, caterpillars do not live in crowded conditions, and the open air of their normal habitat helps keep diseases to a minimum. There are predators; wasps, spiders, ants, even birds, but the huge numbers of monarchs that used to exist did well enough with those risks. It was humans that began dooming them, with development, pesticides, “roundup-ready” crops.
Not all organizations agree that the risk of sending diseased butterflies into the wild where they might infect a mass of wild monarchs is real or dire, but to my surprise, none recommend raising monarchs indoors, either. I’ve shared Monarch Watch’s clear instructions many times (wishing anyone discussing raising monarchs online would do the same), and just assumed that since they were telling us how, they were telling us to. No, like every other major monarch advocacy group, they agree that while raising them might be a nice hobby, especially fun for kids, it’s not helping the species regain its former numbers. The only thing that can boost those number of additional milkweed stems needed, especially in the upper Great Lakes region, is at least a billion. But we can’t raise them back to species health in our homes. And as some of the scientists in these groups have stated, we don’t attempt to save other species, the Kirtland’s Warbler, say, by raising them indoors.
Certain “social” (as opposed to science-based) monarch pages are full of posts about diseased caterpillars or butterflies. Usually the poster asks how to cure them, or turns them loose anyway. Some ask how to keep them alive indoors, maybe until spring. The goal of doing a small part to save a wonderful species seems abandoned, the practice personalized, the butterflies treated as pets. And in this focus on individual people raising butterflies, the need to plant more milkweed is rarely mentioned.
I RECENTLY MADE TWO TRIPS TO POINT PELEE, one resulting in viewing massed monarchs at the tip, maybe 7,500 of them. The other trip, a week later? We saw two, less than I’d seen in my front yard that day! But a side trip to a wonderful place called the John C. Park Homestead, a farmstead on Lake Erie, led to a conversation with a staffer who directed me to some shrubbery that was full of monarchs. She was thrilled. They’d never seen them there in large numbers before. And she told me something surprising: the park had applied for and received a permit to raise them next year. A permit? Yes, raising a Species of Concern requires a permit in Ontario. Permits seem to go to educational organizations, and the numbers of eggs and caterpillars is limited. How many can Ontarian raise without a permit? One.
This time of year gives us our best opportunity to make a real difference, because there are stands of mature milkweed all over, in parks, rest stops, along roadsides, and one pod can contain as many as 300 seeds. Green pods are fine if the seeds are brown. And if you want easily-separated seeds, you want to pick the pods before they explode and the fluff starts drying. The whole inner works comes out looking like a pinecone, and the seeds flick off the damp clump easily. You can even do this indoors. Wait a week longer, and your house could resemble a snow globe.
Goldenrod is the second-most important plant to monarchs, because it and New England Aster give the butterflies the nectar they need for their long flight to Mexico. Scatter some of those seeds, too. Pick some flower clusters after the blooms dry and shake them out in some goldenrod-free areas. And look for our seed-exchange box in the Ferndale Library.
My FIRST COLUMN FOR FERNDALE FRIENDS, at least ten years ago, was called “Leave Your Leaves,” and was about the benefits of allowing leaves to rot on the ground. My formerly-sandy soil is now rich and filled with worms. Leaving leaves seemed worth it for this reason alone. Avoiding the environmental cost of the leaf trucks was another plus, since they’re usually diesel and usually very low-mileage. Now a number of researchers have pointed out that leaf litter is full of moth and butterfly eggs and even chrysalides and cocoons, and a number of things birds like and need. Leaving your leaves, or raking them into your flower beds, is so multi-beneficial, I hope it’s soon the norm.
Becky Hammond lives in Ferndale and changes her mind as situations warrant.