Butterflies not fluttering by

One of the biggest threat to the monarch butterfly population is the loss of milkweed plants.
A Monarch butterfly eats nectar from a swamp milkweed on the shore of Rock Lake in Pequot Lakes, Minn., in this 2012 photo.
A Monarch butterfly eats nectar from a swamp milkweed on the shore of Rock Lake in Pequot Lakes, Minn., in this 2012 photo.

Please don’t mow.

This was the request the environmental group AdkAction.org sent to every town and county highway department in the Adirondack Park in June. The group wants roadside mowing to cease between July 1 and mid-September as part of an effort to protect the fragile monarch butterfly.

“It’s not that we think the fate of the monarch butterfly hinges on road mowing in the Adirondacks,” said Marsha Stanley, who is heading up the group’s monarch initiative. “But [not mowing] is simple and easy to do, and could spare thousands of butterflies that could become millions of butterflies.”

Milkweed is the only plant on which monarchs lay their eggs, and their caterpillars eat only milkweed. One of the biggest threat to the monarch butterfly population is the loss of milkweed plants. According to a 2012 study by the University of Minnesota, between 1999 and 2010 the number of milkweed plants in the Midwest declined by 58 percent.

This is projected to be a poor year for monarchs, which are famous for making an annual migration from their winter home in central Mexico to the northern United States, and returning south each fall.

According to Monarch Watch, an educational outreach program based at the University of Kansas, the 2012-13 overwintering monarch population was the lowest ever recorded — about 59 percent lower than the previous winter. And so far this year, monarch sightings are at the lowest level since 2005.

“The population is very, very down,” said Chip Taylor, the director of Monarch Watch.

“There’s a picture building all over the country that this is a really bad year,” Stanley said.

She said that for the second time in 20 years, not a single monarch butterfly was spotted during the annual butterfly count conducted July 13 in Lake Placid.

In response to such dire reports, AdkAction.org has taken on the cause of helping monarchs. The group is distributing 10,000 informational brochures about the butterfly throughout the Adirondacks. These brochures contain packets of milkweed seeds, which AdkAction.org is asking people to plant.

In addition, AdkAction.org has donated $20,000 to The Wild Center, a natural history museum in Tupper Lake, so it can show the 45-minute IMAX documentary “Flight of the Butterflies,” which tells the story of the monarch’s annual migration, three times a day.

Stanley said Franklin County has agreed to postpone roadside mowing until mid-September. Other counties, she said, have expressed concerns about public safety — concerns AdkAction.org believes are unfounded. She noted a 2012 study by the federal Transportation Research Board found no connection between reduced mowing and deer-vehicle crashes.

Lost habitat

The monarchs are not the only species of butterfly that is struggling.

“Every single day, the butterfly population of North America declines,” said Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the New Jersey-based North American Butterfly Association.

The main reason for the falling numbers, he said, is habitat.

“Each time somebody converts a field into a parking lot or shopping center, the butterfly population declines,” he said. “Many people naively think they fly off and live somewhere else.”

He added that conservation efforts often focus on protecting forests from development, but that doesn’t necessarily help butterflies, which often need open fields to survive.

Glassberg runs an annual butterfly count in Westchester County. He said that over the past 30 years, seven species of butterflies have vanished downstate, including the once-abundant meadow fritillary, which hasn’t been spotted in about seven years. And as northern species have become rarer, southern species such as the fiery skipper are becoming more common.

Encouraging people to plant milkweed and cut back on mowing is a good idea, Glassberg said.

“If you don’t mow, you will create a large amount of habitat,” he said. “When you’re constantly mowing, you destroy habitat for everything — you create a really sterile environment.”

One butterfly species that appears to be on the upswing is the endangered Karner Blue, which was first collected in 1861 in Colonie and still live in the Albany Pine Bush Preserve.

The Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission has made a concerted effort to protect the butterfly by planting wild blue lupine, the only plant on which Karner Blue caterpillars feed, and expanding the butterfly’s habitat from 13 acres in the 1990s to more than 200 today, according to Neil Gifford, conservation director for the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission.

These efforts have paid off, Gifford said.

“Things are looking up big time,” he said. “The raw numbers of Karner Blues that we’re observing in the field are higher than we’ve ever seen.”

He said last year’s Karner Blue population was estimated to be about 3,400, and this year’s population appears to be more than double that.

“We’ve planted hundreds of acres of lupin,” he said. “I think that’s made the difference.”

Another factor might be the Pine Bush Preserve’s captive rearing program, which began several years ago. Through this program, Karner Blue eggs are cared for during the winter at a laboratory at the National Guard base in Concord, N.H., and returned to the Pine Bush when they are in the chrysalis stage. When the butterflies hatch, they are released into the wild.

The idea, Gifford said, “is to jump-start the colonization of new habitat.”

Gifford said protecting the Karner Blue is a challenge due to the Pine Bush’s suburban location.

“The preserve is so fragmented by roads and development,” he said.

He suggested the butterflies were doing well because “we’re intensively managing the habitat at our sites.”

Earlier this year, the Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park reported that its Karner Blues were faring well and that it is much easier to spot them this year compared to last. About 150 acres of the Wilton preserve is dedicated to the Karner Blue.

Feeding growth

On the Monarch Watch website, Taylor pinpoints a number of factors contributing to the decline of the monarch butterfly population. These factors include:

u The loss of milkweed in fields where row crops, such as corn and soybeans, are grown because of the adoption of seed varieties genetically modified to tolerate treatment with herbicides.

“The utilization of these herbicide-tolerant crops has all but eliminated milkweeds from these fields,” he wrote.

u The push for the production of biofuels, which has resulted in the planting of 25.5 million more acres of corn and soybeans than were “planted as recently as 2006.”

u Development, “which consumes 6,000 acres a day or 2.2 million acres a year.”

u Unusual weather — “and we had plenty of that during the 2012 monarch breeding season,” Taylor wrote. “March was the warmest recorded since nationwide record-keeping began in 1895.”

He said warm weather allows monarchs to fly north quickly, but their arrival in areas “north of Oklahoma in April are often followed by low temperatures that delay development of the population. … Hot and dry conditions probably have the effect of reducing adult lifespan and therefore the number of eggs laid per female over their lifetime.”

“The good news is that we can do something about the habitats in the United States and Canada — we can plant milkweed,” Taylor wrote. “That said, in order to compensate for the continued loss of habitat we need to plant LOTS AND LOTS of milkweed.”

Delmar resident and butterfly enthusiast Carol Ann Margolis maintains a butterfly garden in her yard, where she plants milkweed and nectar-bearing flowers such as purple aster to attract monarchs.

She also raises monarch eggs, which she retrieves from milkweed plants, in her home, releasing the butterflies when they emerge from their chrysalis. Before she releases them, she affixes each one with a tag, in an effort to help Monarch Watch track the butterflies. Though only one of her tags has ever been recovered, she said she remains optimistic another will be found.

“If you want to find monarchs, you have to find milkweed plants,” she said. “I usually find them along roads and fields.”

She said some of the places that were once-reliable sites of milkweed, such as the rail trail near the Elsmere fire station in Delmar, have been mowed down.

“It’s a real problem,” she said. “If they would stop mowing for a month, the milkweed could grow back.”

Another big problem, she said, is development.

“When a nice housing development goes up, they mow down all the milkweed,” she said.

Margolis’ current project is creating “monarch way stations” in Albany with the Girl Scouts of Northeastern New York. A monarch way station is essentially a monarch habitat — a mix of plants, such as milkweed and nectar-bearing plants, that can support the butterfly in every stage of life, from the larval stage to the adult stage.

“I always say, ‘If you plant it, they will come,’ ” Margolis said.

People interested in creating monarch way stations can obtain seed packets through the Monarch Watch website at monarchwatch.org.

Super generation

Each year, hundreds of millions of monarchs leave Mexico in late winter for Southern states such as Texas and Oklahoma, where they lay eggs that give birth to a second generation of butterflies that continue the journey.

Because the lifespan of the migrating monarchs is between four and five weeks, it takes four or five generations of monarchs to reach the north. They spend the summer in states stretching from Minnesota to Maine and parts of southern Canada. Their return trip to Mexico is made by one generation of monarch, known as the “super generation” because it lives for a much longer period than previous generations, about nine months. West of the Rocky Mountains, monarchs overwinter on the Monterey Peninsula in California.

The monarchs that emerge in the Adirondacks are members of this super generation.

“It’s not fully understood, but their reproductive urges cease [at this latitude],” Stanley said.

Earlier this month, the Insectarium de Montreal, an insect museum in Canada, reported an estimated 90 percent drop in the overall monarch population in Eastern Canada.

“This is unheard of,” the museum said in a statement. “Across the continent, scientists and butterfly enthusiasts are worried, and the Montreal Insectarium echoes their questions and concerns: Could the migration of monarchs in eastern North America one day disappear altogether?”

Taylor will speak at The Wild Center at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 23.

Categories: Schenectady County

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