The Butterfly (Rescuer) Affect: Monarch-Lovers Aim To Repopulate the Species and Those Against It

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Chrysalises hang from a stick in Eva Rodriguez’s kitchen, tied there with bows of dental floss: two dozen inch-long, jade‑colored hard casings that look like pendants with golden beading at the top, a flash of bling. Nearby, monarch butterflies cling to a Christmas cactus, while another sits on a plate, unfurling its thin black proboscis into a mound of chopped-up watermelon.

“You’re acting cuckoo, you’re just getting cuckoo,” she croons to a fluttering specimen in her hand. It’s eager to fly out the door before she can affix a small tagging sticker to its wing.

Just a few miles south of Rodriguez’s Seal Beach home, Leslie Gilson is in “her” park in Huntington Beach, watching monarch butterflies flit amid the eucalyptus trees and take an occasional nectar break at flower-laden shrubs. When their offspring grow fat, Gilson takes them home, these yellow, black, and white striped caterpillars, feeds them daily meals of leaves, and protects them from predators in mesh laundry baskets from Ikea.

But Monika Moore has both women beat when it comes to rearing butterflies. She has created quite the monarch habitat in the raised beds of her Fullerton backyard: She planted milkweed, the monarch’s host plant, and covered the plants tent-like with zippered netting stretching over tubular frames. The butterflies are safe in this environment, from egg stage until the moment they’re ready to fly, and Moore doesn’t have to hand-feed them. She releases about 1,000 butterflies into the wild from her garden each year.

The newbie, the civic activist, the veteran: These are three of Orange County’s monarch rescuers, passionate hobbyists intent on saving an embattled species, one butterfly at a time. It would seem an innocuous enough obsession, but they have run into opposition from scientists who say that monarch fever might be doing more to harm the butterflies than help them.

It all starts innocently enough. Upon learning how the species’ numbers dropped by a perilous 80 percent in two decades, people buy a couple of milkweed plants for the yard, hoping to help. Milkweed, which comes in many forms, is the only plant on which the monarch will lay its eggs, the only leaves that the spectacularly marked caterpillars will eat.

And eat.

Once the caterpillars denude the plant and need more food to make it to chrysalis stage, their keepers rush out to buy extra milkweed. They add flowering plants, and the nectar attracts more butterflies. Then, almost inevitably, comes the painful stage of caterpillars disappearing—mostly done in by wasps, spiders, and similar predators.

Obsession generally kicks in when people realize they must provide protection to the monarchs so they’ll survive, which means placing them in protected housing or bringing them indoors. This requires feeding them regularly until the caterpillars hang from an overhead spot, curling into a J shape, and veiling themselves in that little tube of jade green, with the line of brightly shining gold dots around the top. A week or two later, a butterfly emerges.

This movement is nationwide, with several Facebook groups devoted to tips for monarch-rearing. The largest, The Beautiful Monarch, has 11,500 members. Aficionados know how to repair damaged wings—even transplant them. (The patient is chilled first in the refrigerator, which serves as a butterfly sedative.)

Rodriguez, though, is a relative newcomer to all this. The retired human resources manager began courting monarchs only a year ago, after hearing about them from a friend. She became so successful at breeding them that she’s running a sort of butterfly assembly line on her patio and in her kitchen.
She’s feeling her way along, more grandmother to her growing brood than monarch expert. In devoting most of her yard’s one narrow flower bed to plants for the creatures, she hit the monarch jackpot. The plants were quickly swarmed with caterpill
ars.

By mid-February, Rodriguez had released more than 350 butterflies. Her number of milkweed plants has roughly quadrupled, and they now dominate the raised bed.

Shelves in a lightly shaded part of the patio hold a collection of wide glass vases and bowls, each covered with screen mesh that’s kept in place with rubber bands. In one jar, aging caterpillars hang in suspended J formations, about to enter the chrysalise stage. In others, the light-green chrysalises are already hanging from the mesh, attached by the monarch’s own strong, silk-like material.

Rodriguez’s daily schedule of butterfly care takes all morning and into the early afternoon. She cleans the bowls first; in the ones with caterpillars, she supplies the daily milkweed leaves for them to eat and lines the bottom of the container with paper towels that are changed regularly. Caterpillars are, to put it delicately, messy creatures.

After the chrysalises form, Rodriguez ties dental floss around the silk button, tugs the chrysalis off the screen, and attaches it to a small rod that’s suspended between two bottles on her kitchen table. But there are so many chrysalises that they are strung from the Christmas cactus or a small bare-branched plant. Recently hatched butterflies perch on the cactus.

Newly emerged monarchs are fragile creatures; they cannot fly for several hours until fluid flows from their abdomens into their wings, which causes the wings to enlarge and reach their full size and strength. “I keep them inside until they grow strong enough,” Rodriguez says, placing another butterfly on the mound of watermelon, a favorite monarch snack. “And they get hungry while they wait.” Once they show signs of wanting to fly off, Rodriguez affixes a tiny numbered sticker to each one, announcing, as though this were a hospital delivery room, “This one’s a little girl. … This one’s a little boy.” (The males have a spot on each wing.) The sticker also supplies her phone number so people will call to let her know of the monarch’s progress. She notes the butterfly’s number and sex on a form attached to a clipboard and carries the new monarch out to a bush covered with lavender flowers, where it rests for a few minutes, slowly flexing its wings before taking flight. Then she brings in more chrysalises from the glass bowls and ties them to the rod.

“I don’t know when we’re going to be able to take vacation,” she tells her husband, Tino, who nods agreeably, a willing co-conspirator in the monarch campaign. “We have to plan it for when they’re not active.”

Who would ever guess that such altruism toward a picturesque insect would be controversial? Yet in October 2015, a group of prominent scientists issued a public letter of concern about the increasing numbers of people who rear masses of monarchs, especially when they do it year-round.

“While raising and releasing small numbers of monarchs can offer important scientific and educational opportunities and foster a connection to nature,” they wrote, “we believe that releasing commercially produced and continuously mass-reared individuals is unlikely to benefit monarchs, and could actually hurt them, as a result of mass rearing conditions that promote crowding and disease spread, or cause the loss of genetic diversity or adaptation to captive rearing conditions.”

In addition, they said, large-scale releases can disrupt scientists’ ability to understand what’s going on with wild populations of butterflies; they suggested instead that people plant a few host and nectar plants, and leave the rest to nature.

According to David James, an associate professor and monarch expert at Washington State University and one of those signing the letter, big commercial breeders—the ones who provide butterflies for release at weddings and the like—are the biggest concern. But it’s also problematic when individuals rear large numbers of monarchs year-round, he said, a possibility in California when people plant nonnative tropical milkweed, which is green year-round. Native milkweeds die back in winter.

Of special concern is a parasite that can be spread via the milkweed leaves. It usually dies down in winter, when the monarchs aren’t laying eggs and when there are no milkweed leaves for it to live on. Tropical milkweed gives it the chance to keep going, James said. The problem can be resolved by cutting the plant down to stubs in late fall, he added.

That’s what Leslie Gilson does. Native milkweed doesn’t provide enough greenery compared with the bushier, easier-to-grow tropical plant, she said—but she makes sure the monarchs have nothing to eat in winter. Moore also cuts down her tropical milkweed in the winter and takes steps to avoid parasites. Rodriguez, on the other hand, had not heard of the scientists’ concerns.

When Gilson returned to Huntington Beach in 2007, after 15 years living abroad, her main goal was to clean up Norma Gibbs Park, which had become a 7-acre wreck of overgrown brush and dead eucalyptus trees. She’d heard that Gibbs Park had once been a monarch overwintering spot, where thousands of the butterflies would cluster together so tightly that they looked like overlapping scales on the tree bark. This hadn’t happened in decades.

She shamed the city into helping her make the park over, and a local tree group lent its support. Nearly 180 new trees were planted. Decorative tiles at the park’s entrance illustrate the monarch’s life cycle. In a fenced garden in the middle of the park, and in beds that stretch the length of each side, flowering plants and milkweed provide food and egg-laying habitat. And Gilson presides over it all, acting as volunteer and on-site naturalist, greeting the helpers and park denizens as they come in, and keeping an eye out for visitors who might harm the local wildlife. “The other day a family came in with butterfly nets,” she says, her filigree butterfly earrings dancing as she shakes her head. It’s not fun confronting people bent on capturing the creatures she has worked so hard to foster, but that doesn’t stop her from trying, and, in this case, succeeding.

During the past few years, the monarchs have begun overwintering here again, though not in great numbers—clusters of them huddled on a tree or two. And beyond its boundaries, milkweed is finding its way into more gardens. “A lot of people have milkweed in Huntington Beach,” Gilson says. “We’ve been out there, spreading the word.” The question is whether people know to cut back the plants.

They could certainly learn a thing or two from Moore, who has her own way of dealing with the scientists’ concerns. She cuts back her many milkweed plants starting in November, but on a rotating basis so there’s always something around for a butterfly that might want to lay eggs. And she uses an extremely mild bleach solution to kill the parasites, rinsing the milkweed leaves at least twice. Infested monarchs are euthanized.

Moore has been rearing butterflies ever since she plunked her first milkweed plant into her yard 12 years ago. “It got 200 caterpillars and I was addicted.” She’s now one of the county’s experts, giving presentations at schools, libraries, and gardening clubs, and spreading information via her own Facebook group, California Butterfly Lady, which has more than 1,000 followers. She keeps extensive notes on various types of milkweed and other monarch-rearing tips in folders printed with butterflies. Moore is a nondiscriminatory butterfly person; she also provides habitat and protection for Gulf frittilaries, swallowtails, and cloud sulphurs.

For Moore, it’s about closeness to the most elemental part of nature—the life cycle. She watches as it repeats itself hundreds of times a year in her backyard. “One female monarch can lay up to 600 eggs,” she says. “Left in the wild to fend for themselves, only 12 will make it unassisted. Predators will get the rest. … I do like giving Mother Nature a helping hand.”

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