By MICHAEL MCLAUGHLIN
I’ve always been a bug guy. For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with all things creepy and crawly. From the time when, as a little boy, I kept what I thought were baby seahorses in a jar of water, only to find a few days later, adult mosquitoes floating on the water’s surface. I was the kid who used a magnifying glass to count the 40 times that a honeybee’s venom sack beats (and can still sting) when the stinger leaves the bee; I was the kid whose very patient mother let him keep (at least temporarily) the birds, bugs, lizards and snakes he found. She even tolerated not one, but two, 4-foot black snakes that I brought home to our Steward Manor apartment — at least until one of them got out of the terrarium.
So decades later, a much older version of that kid learned that there was a simple way to help one of the most beautiful pollinators on the planet, the monarch butterfly. The monarch’s numbers had been in decline due to habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change. One easy solution was to address the habitat loss by planting milkweed. Since milkweed is the host plant on which female monarchs lay their eggs, and its leaves are the sole food source for the caterpillars that hatch from those eggs, the equation is simple and stark: no milkweed = no monarchs.
About five years ago, I transplanted two milkweed plants from a meadow in Severn into our side yard. Milkweed propagates underground, so the next year we had over four plants, and the year after that, 16 plants. The past two years, there have been over 30 plants that I now thin to encourage new leaf growth before the monarchs arrive.
The monarch butterfly is not only a large butterfly with vibrant colors and markings, it has one of the most incredible life cycles in all of nature. From their otherworldly, physical metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, to their extraordinary migration from Canada to Mexico and back, these creatures are beauty and wonder rolled into one.
The monarch’s metamorphosis is, in a word, mind-boggling. Initially it goes from a pinhead-size egg that increases its mass by 3,000 times in two weeks to become a large, colorful caterpillar. That caterpillar then transforms into a beautiful, emerald-green chrysalis with gold accents, and in less than two weeks a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, slowly unfolding, drying and exercising its big, beautiful, majestic wings in preparation to migrate The monarchs we see in our area in late summer and early fall are on their long journey to forested regions in central Mexico, where they’ll overwinter before migrating back north in the spring.
Monarchs’ migration, a round trip that may be 3,000 miles, is not accomplished by a single generation; indeed, the round trip takes four, sometimes five generations of butterflies: typically three (sometimes four) generations to make the trip from central Mexico north for the summer, and a final generation of long-haulers to make the trip back south for the winter.
You don’t need to do anything special to attract monarchs to your milkweed; to paraphrase a line from that baseball movie, “If you plant it, they will come.” Three years ago, when a friend said he had monarch caterpillars on his milkweed, I went out and checked ours. Sure enough, there were a handful of monarch caterpillars on our plants, too. I went into protective mode and covered the plants with mosquito netting, and our family enjoyed watching the monarchs transform through their different stages of development.
We released five butterflies that first year. I was able to record some of the magic as it happened, and our grandkids enjoyed releasing the butterflies when the time came.
Last year we got a tagging kit from monarchwatch.org, and successfully tagged and released 11 butterflies. And though milkweed’s toxicity means that monarch caterpillars have few predators, they can have parasites; we would have tagged and released more than twice that number of butterflies except for the presence of a tachinid fly that demolished our caterpillar crop. Nature can be cruel.
We tagged and released 11 this year, too, including three I placed on our clematis for a photo op. They ended up hanging around on the clematis for over an hour until the sun came out from behind the clouds.
I took the last six we had this year, one butterfly and five chrysalises, to Samantha Arnold, a kindergarten teacher at Laurel Elementary School. Hopefully her young students will be able to witness some of the magic these fascinating creatures serve up.
By the time you read this, those remaining monarchs, having been tagged and released by the kids at Laurel Elementary, will be well on their way to Mexico with a “Vaya con Dios!” wish from us all.