Perilous Journey

monarch

by Cari Marshall
Photography by Shannon Kintner

This time of year, the skies over Central Texas should be aflutter with millions of monarch butterflies as they head north from Mexico to the cooler climes of Canada for the summer. This extraordinary migration, over approximately 3,000 miles, takes at least three generations of butterflies to complete—each laying millions of eggs along the way.

Then in the fall, one “super generation” (so-called because it alone makes the journey south) makes its way back to the overwintering sites in the transvolcanic mountain ranges of Mexico. Because both north- and south-bound monarchs must pass through Texas, the state has been dubbed “the funnel” by monarch experts.

Amazingly, milkweed is the only plant on which monarchs will lay their eggs, and the only one that monarch caterpillars will eat. Milkweed grows easily here and with little effort, and when paired with the abundant nectar from countless types of native wildflowers, our region provides the ideal recipe to assist the monarch—the official state insect of Texas—on its epic journey. Yet, in recent years, the monarch’s trek has been affected by a dramatic array of forces, including illegal deforestation in Mexico, early freezes on the East Coast and herbicide-based agriculture in the Midwest. In Texas, severe drought, overdevelopment and even roadside mowing have had a major impact, and the monarch’s migration has become so hazardous that its very survival might be at stake. In 2012, the estimated number of monarchs to arrive in their roosting grounds in Mexico reportedly dropped to about three million—down from the estimated one billion just a few years earlier.

Craig Hensley, an environmental educator and park ranger at Guadalupe River State Park in Spring Branch, stresses the impact of habitat loss, genetically-modified crops and “clean farming”—the removal of grassy areas and weeds from around cropland—on depleted butterfly resources. “Talking with fellow naturalists, the story is the same,” says a disheartened Hensley. “There are fewer [butterflies] to be seen. When I see them now, I nearly cheer them onward. It’s becoming too much of a special event as opposed to a time when they were almost an afterthought. I look at the monarch like the passenger pigeon. There was a time when these now-extinct birds literally blotted out the sun in uncountable numbers. Today they’re a distant memory.”

Matt Morris is all too aware of the monarch’s plight as well. Morris manages Zilker Botanical Garden’s Butterfly Trail, which includes roughly 45 gardens that cover about three acres. The winding trails and gardens may appear purely decorative, but there is intent behind every purple passionflower, pipevine, blue porterweed and, of course, the multitude of milkweed—all favorable to help create the next generation of caterpillars.

In 2012, Morris established the garden as a certified Monarch Waystation—a concept created by Monarch Watch, a national outreach and awareness program—which supplies migrating butterflies and caterpillars with the milkweed, flowering plants, shelter and water they need for survival, and educates visitors about how they can help. “These waystations provide the necessities for monarchs to complete their incredible migration,” Morris says. “With habitat loss, pesticide use and weather extremes, these backyard oases are becoming more important not only for monarchs but for other butterflies as well.” 

At Zilker, Morris is also part of Monarch Watch’s tagging program, which involves adhering tiny tags with numbered information to a monarch’s wing. Anyone who finds a dead tagged monarch can call the phone number on the tag and provide information about the butterfly’s location. Tracking a monarch’s movement may hold clues about the forces affecting their behavior patterns.

Catalina Aguado Trail is a social worker who lives in South Austin, but for monarch followers, she’s a bit of a celebrity. In the early 1970s, Canadians Fred and Norah Urquhart—creators of the butterfly-tagging concept—hired Trail and her then-husband, Kenneth Brugger, as research assistants to help determine the monarchs’ migratory route. After the team discovered the butterflies’ overwintering colonies in Mexico in 1975, it was Trail’s image that ended up on the cover of National Geographic. 

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Trail is the last remaining survivor of that team. She has a butterfly-friendly habitat on her one-acre property, but she long ago eschewed any public persona—partly because she was horrified by the hordes of tourists that invaded the butterfly colonies after their discovery, actually took butterflies away in bags and nearly destroyed the area. But with the 2012 release of the 3-D film Flight of the Butterflies—which tells the story of the Urquharts’ decades-long research—combined with the catastrophic drop in butterfly numbers in 2012, Trail has become more visible. Mainly, she wants to encourage homeowners and public land managers to allow open spaces to be more wild and less manicured. “I like bugs. I don’t like pristine grass. I like nature. I like to see all those tiny flowers that you can only see if you go that close to the ground,” Trail says, holding her fingertips a hair’s width from her eyes. “There are so many beautiful flowers there. You almost need a magnifying glass to see them. And there are bugs on them!”

When Trail recalls walking into her first butterfly colony—now a protected sanctuary—almost 40 years ago, and being blanketed by the confetti of fluttering butterflies, she still gets teary-eyed. “That was a fantastic thing that I will never forget,” she says. “Like little waves of orange. I love them. They gave me a thrill back then; they continue to do that.”

Indeed, the story of the monarch is truly thrilling, and should be a wake-up call across the continent. “Monarch butterflies represent one of nature's many amazing miracles,” says Hensley. “The migration of a tiny insect from over two-thirds of the country to one place in Mexico—by butterflies that have never been there—is just an amazing spectacle that we can all enjoy, if only we take the time to observe them. These butterflies connect three countries. What happens in any one of these countries impacts what we see in others.”

With the continued efforts of monarch activists, better attention to the butterfly’s needs and a wider awareness among those who live in the migratory path, perhaps these glorious creatures can once again regain their numbers and rightful place in the sky.

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Ways to Help the Monarchs

  • Probably the easiest way to make your yard or garden butterfly- and caterpillar-friendly is to plant milkweed. There are dozens of types of milkweed that are beautiful and easy to grow here, but tropical milkweed is the most hardy. Matt Morris at Zilker Botanical Garden emphasizes, though, that it’s not about creating a perfect, manicured space. “You’re going to have to change your mind-set when you plant a butterfly garden,” he says. “It’s going to get chewed up.” For information on planting milkweed, visit wildflower.org
  • Choose pollinator-friendly flowering plants, such as sunflowers, blazing star, blue mist flower, buttonbush, lantana, zinnias, butterfly bushes, pentas and verbena.
  • Consider providing alternative nectar sources: a butterfly feeding station can be as simple as a plate covered with scraps of melon, orange, bananas and other overripe or rotting fruit—particularly fruit that is orange, red, yellow, blue or purple in color. 
  • Make water available in a dish or birdbath.
  • Avoid using pesticides or over-mowing your lawn.
  • Join the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project at mlmp.org or establish a Monarch Waystation at monarchwatch.org/waystations

 

Local sources for milkweed

These local garden centers offer milkweed, both in seed and starter form. Because milkweed is the monarch caterpillar’s first meal, confirm that it has not been treated with chemical fertilizers.

Barton Springs Nursery
bartonspringsnursery.net

Countryside Nursery
countrysideaustin.com

Garden-Ville
garden-ville.com

Great Outdoors
gonursery.com

It’s About Thyme
itsaboutthyme.com

Natural Gardener
naturalgardeneraustin.com

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