Majestic Monarch migration begins

Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Local butterfly enthusiast Karen Richardson is helping to perpetuate the Monarch species by providing a safe haven in her home and educating the public about their importance in our ecosystem. The butterflies have been decimated due to major habitat loss of their primary food source and host plant, the milkweed, and are currently migrating to Mexico for the winter. Contributed photo

Local resident helping preserve butterfly species

Each fall, a mysterious and magnificent event occurs in nature -- the migration of the Monarch butterfly to Mexico.

Hundreds of the winged insects, a symbol of transformation, beauty and wonder, may be seen flying overhead, or roosting in nearby trees. And now, the Monarchs are on the move south.

Several beautiful, perfect Monarch butterflies emerge transformed from their previous caterpillar cocoons thanks to local butterfly extraordinaire Karen Richardson, who has been speaking in the community about the importance of the winged-wonders to our ecosystem because the insects help pollinate plants, flowers, and are a food source to many predators from bats to birds, wasps and spiders. Contributed photo

Primal instincts trigger masses to flights to special mountain habitats in Mexico to survive the winter, as humans ponder questions such as, 'How do they know when to leave? How do they know how to get there?'

In recent years, Monarch numbers have downright plummeted, due to loss of habitat including milkweed. The caterpillars feed on milkweed, their primary food source, and in about two weeks, enter the chrysalis stage before emerging as a mature butterfly. The plant also serves as shelter, protection from predators, and a host plant on which they breed, making it critical for their survival. Loss of habitat in Mexico is another cause, along with wide-spread herbicide use throughout North America, all but eliminating milkweed.

For these reasons, the Missouri Department of Conservation has been encouraging Missourians to preserve and plant milkweed for the Monarch larvae and flowers that supply nectar for the adults.

"Monarch butterfly populations are declining due to loss of habitat," said Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch. "To assure a future for Monarchs, conservation and restoration of milkweeds needs to become a national priority."

Butterflies are crucial to the ecosystem, and to humans, because they help pollinate plants and flowers, and they are a food source to a wide variety of predators from bats to birds, wasps and spiders. Monarch broods are produced in Missouri in summer and fall.

Locally, Monarchs have a good chance of making a comeback thanks to butterfly enthusiast Karen Richardson. Area residents have been contacting Richardson for advice on the milkweed plants, and Richardson has been speaking in the community about the important role butterflies play in our ecosystem and food supply.

She is also providing a safe haven for several of the winged beauties, which she adopted from a resident who contacted her, with a special habitat in her home.

"I got 13 huge, fat cats," she said. "From her set, I have five that have enclosed [or hatched], at least two more that should be out soon and two more that may not come out until tomorrow. It happens quickly when they're ready.

"I have nine butterflies that have emerged this morning with more on the way, and close to 100 total, [including eggs, caterpillars and chrysalides]."

Four of the chrysalides died from a Tachinid fly infestation, Richardson said, a parasitic fly that is considered a beneficial insect in gardens, but not for butterflies.

"That's been my worst challenge this year," she said. "I kept those in a baggie in the freezer for demonstration purposes."

Richardson has been speaking about the Monarchs at schools and nursing homes, and she recently did a demonstration and butterfly release at George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond. On Oct. 16, she will be at the Cassville Branch Library.

"Between raising them, [rescued from fields and roadways], and doing programs, I'm staying real busy," she said. "It's been a good few months, but the season is quickly coming to an end. I don't know how long I'll be finding eggs and caterpillars, but I'll keep going until that ends.

"The biggest development is that the butterflies are on the move, migrating from Canada south through our area this month and even more next month. Folks will be seeing them soaring overhead, usually about tree-top level, or nectaring on wildflowers in between to get energy for the next leg of their journey south."

Richardson is helping many of the winged beauties take flight in more ways than one.

"To date, I've released over 150 [and tagged 100 since Aug. 16]," she said. "People always ask how in the world we tag a Monarch butterfly. It's tricky but not too hard. I purchase tags from Monarch Watch [at the University of Kansas].

"The tags are made from a very thin vinyl about one-quarter-inch in diameter. They sell them in sheets of 25. I've learned the hard way to buy more than I think I'll need."

Richardson said she had to recently release 12 butterflies without tags because she ran out of the tags, which have a three-week wait.

"The purpose of tagging the Monarchs is to give more chances for data collection when they arrive at their overwintering sites in Mexico from November to March," she said. "Several studies have been going on for years, and the data collected from tagged monarchs in Mexico is really important."

According to information from www.monarchwatch.org, Monarchs east of the Rockies migrate to the Transvolcanic mountains of central Mexico. Millions from central and eastern Canadian provinces and the eastern and midwestern United States fly south to Mexico. Their flight pattern is shaped like a cone as they join together and pass over Texas.

In 1975, the scientific community tracked down the wintering sites of the Monarch in Mexico. Until then, the butterflies' winter hideouts had been a secret known only to local villagers and landowners. The sites must have certain characteristics to enable their survival, such as trees to buffer winds and snow, and fog or clouds in mountainous regions to provide water for moisture. The butterflies also choose a cool place so they don't metabolize and use up energy reserves as fast. These conditions are found in oyamel fir forests in a very small area of mountain tops in central Mexico, about 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) about sea level on steep, southwest-facing slopes.

The butterflies cluster together, covering whole tree trunks and branches, and cling to fir and pine needles. The tall trees make a thick canopy over their heads, and on sunny days, they warm up enough to fly to nearby water to drink. They fly back to the roost before getting too cold, when they can sometimes be seen taking flight.

To follow the Monarchs on their migration journey, people may visit: https://www.learner.org/jnorth/monarch/, or http://monarchconservation.org/the-challenge/.

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