Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

Lifestyles

June 23, 2014

Plateau Gardening: Where are the monarch butterflies?     

CROSSVILLE — Earlier in June I took my camera out to the wildflower meadow between the southern edge of our woods and the main road to snap pictures of nectar plants in bloom and of butterflies feeding. From its establishment in the spring of 2009, I have found insects of all sorts fly in to partake of nectar from the big, round, purple flowers of common milkweed plants once the buds open. The flora of the hummingbird and butterfly meadow did not disappoint but only a single brush-footed butterfly came to my photo shoot — a Great Spangled Fritillary. Where were the monarchs?

Monarch butterflies are the only North American insect species that migrates south for the winter and then back again, just as birds do. These butterflies cannot live through freezing temperatures in any of their life-forms so adult butterflies fly and glide on thermal wind currents thousands of miles south during August and September from locations as far north as Canada. Those whose summer breeding grounds are west of the Rocky Mountains winter along the California coast in groves of eucalyptus trees.

The North American monarch butterfly population east of the Rockies overwinters in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico in oyamel fir trees. Since monarch caterpillars eat only certain varieties of milkweed plants which don’t grow in their winter territory, the eastern monarchs travel north again in springtime to Texas breeding grounds. Though the generation of eastern monarchs that makes the trip to Mexico at summer’s end lives six months or more, a series of four successive generations will be born over the following year along the way back to their northern territories and during summer in those places. All but the generation that migrates south will live just six weeks or less. How great-great-grandchildren of butterflies that made the migratory journey in the prior year can find their way back to the same tree in the same location is a mystery.

When planning the meadow and researching appropriate butterfly plants in 2009, I learned monarch numbers had been dwindling since the winter of 1996-'97. A positive note was that scientists at the University of Kansas at Lawrence (website, www.MonarchWatch.org) had devised new ways to tag and track Monarch migration and population numbers. A campaign to bring back monarchs through restoration of milkweed habitat was then (and still is) underway

Influenced by that news, the first seeds sown in my meadow were common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Seeds for other butterfly nectar and host plants soon followed. In May 2011, monarch caterpillars were eating the milkweed leaves. I celebrated discovery of the butterfly meadow by a north-bound monarch female then filed an online report with Butterflies and Moths of North America (http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/), a site for collecting and sharing data about Lepidoptera.

Unfortunately, 2012 was hot and dry (not good for butterflies). Early this year and in 2013 spring weather was cold and wet. My milkweed was delayed — just tiny sprouts on May 1. Email reports from Monarch Watch say after three bad years over-wintering monarch numbers in 2013-'14 were at an all time low. I have seen no monarchs and wonder if others in our area have. Adult monarch butterflies are large having a wing span between 3 3/8 inches and 5 inches. Their wings are red-orange with dark markings and white dots. The wings of males have black borders, clearly defined thin black veins and a distinctive black "spot" along a vein on each hind wing. The females are a not-so-bright brown-tinged orange color with black borders. Females have less distinct and wider veining but no dark spot on the hind wings. Both sexes have white spots along wing borders and at the apex (front wing tips). See pictures of the caterpillars from 2011 for ID of the brightly striped Monarch larva. Hopefully, we will not soon see the end of the butterflies whose name proclaims them kings of the butterfly realm.

• • •

Plateau Gardening is written by Master Gardeners for gardeners in Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland Region.  Contact UT Extension Cumberland County at P.O. Box 483, Crossville, TN 38557 (931-484-6743) for answers to horticulture questions, free publications and to learn about the Master Gardener program. Send email comments or yard and garden inquiries to Master Gardener Rae (MGardenerRae@frontiernet.net).

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