Above / Milkweed found in Knoch Knolls Park and other natural landscape around town is a food source for monarch butterflies. The best time to begin milkweed plants outside is in early spring after the danger of frost has passed. By contrast, the best time to plant milkweed from seed is in late fall, experts say.  (PN File Photo 2011)

Updated, July 16, 2016 / Milkweed in May Watts Park attracts a monarch butterfly, a first for the 2017 season.

Above / While zeroing in on a couple of great blue heron along the banks of May Watts Pond, we could have reached out and touched this monarch butterfly feeding on milkweed in May Watts Park. (Photo July 16, 2017)

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Monarch caterpillar feeds on milkweed, planted in Chatham, New Jersey. (Photo courtesy of Diane Conlan, Summer 2016)

Original Post, Sept. 23, 2017 / Every time I see a brightly-colored orange and black monarch butterfly touch down in our garden, I think of the special magic of Mother Nature.

I’m also reminded of an inquisitive youngster in a first-grade class I taught while living in St. Thomas U.S.V.I. He was fascinated by bitter-tasting butterflies such as the monarch known for their ability to metamorphose in stages from caterpillars into beautiful, colorful winged creatures. He had memorized passages from a children’s book that explained the four stages of a butterfly’s life cycle, and when he recited his thoughts, they were complete with pauses for the parenthesis.

More than once, he enlightened his classmates and me with words from his favorite picture book about butterflies.

“A butterfly starts its life as an egg,” I recall he’d say. “The larva (caterpillar) hatches from an egg and devours leaves or flowers almost constantly. The caterpillar molts (loses its old skin) many times as it grows. It turns into a pupa (chrysalis); a resting stage. Then it becomes an adult (butterfly).”

Milkweed & Monarchs

Our former next door neighbor in Chatham, New Jersey, planted milkweed in her garden two years ago to attract monarch butterflies and to observe their symbiotic relationship.

Diane Conlan said there was no activity last year, but recently while they attended the annual New Jersey Fireman’s Convention in Wildwood, New Jersey, her friend and neighbor, Jean Mattle, saw three caterpillars enjoying the milkweed in Diane’s garden.

All species of butterflies are known for one biological wonder: their ability to metamorphose from caterpillars into winged creatures.

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The natural landscape at May Watts Park enjoys an abundance of tall milkweed, but very few monarch butterflies have been spotted there. (PN Photo 2016)

Folks in the Midwest likely have read the monarch butterfly is facing a 90 percent population decline that threatens the species with some improvement noted recently.

Part of the problem is prompted by the lack of the perennial milkweed, critical to several species of butterflies’ survival. Milkweed provides nectar along the migration route and is the only plant on which these insects can lay their eggs. As subdivisions develop and farmers cultivate more open land for agricultural use, the wild pinkish-purple flowering plant with pods that dry and burst open with white seed puffs is disappearing from the Midwestern landscape. 

“There is the monarch butterfly project in Cape May and the darling girl gave us lots more information this time than we got last year…” noted Diane when she sent the photo of the caterpillar in this post.  “When we were on our way back home from the demonstration and I got a text from Jean and pictures of these caterpillars on my milkweed. I was so excited!”

Diane added a couple factoids.

“We were told that if an 8-pound baby ate the same  amount of food for two weeks that this caterpillar eats  for 2 weeks, the baby would weigh 2,500 pounds.

“A monarch can lay upwards of 200 eggs a day. They try and lay them on different plants so that there will be enough food for the caterpillar to eat and grow.”

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Screen shot of resources provided by Diane Conlan.

An online search about the relationship between milkweed and the monarch butterfly that weighs less than a paperclip provides more amazing information about the biology and conservation of this butterfly that often lives longer than eight months.

In fact, the monarch often flies about 80 miles in a day, spreading it wings to journey along “Milkweed Highways” on the Atlantic Coast, venturing toward the Sierra Madre Mountains in central Mexico.

The benefits of saving the Monarch in large numbers go way beyond local boundaries. The beautiful butterfly serves as an “international and iconic representative of all pollinators.”

The stability of food sources and ecosystems are dependent on healthy pollinator populations, and conserving monarchs will secure the habitats and the environment for many species.

According to a news story in the Daily Herald posted on August 23, 2016, the number of monarchs making the 3,400-mile migration from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico had been declining before beginning to recover in 2014.

“… In December, the butterflies covered 10 acres, compared to 2.8 acres in 2014 and a record low of 1.66 acres in 2013. That is still well below the 44 acres they covered 20 years ago,” the AP report said in the Daily Herald story.

Continue to plant and respect milkweed. Spread the word to help attract monarchs.

That’s all for now!
—PN

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