This can be a rough time of the year for the seemingly fragile monarch butterflies. That’s what Claire Kirschner, 5, and her family learned this past Sunday at Frohring Meadows in Bainbridge during a special monarch migration game trail.
Monarch butterfly populations are on the decline mostly due to loss of habitat, said Geauga Park District Naturalist Dottie Drockton, who led the program. The loss of milkweed and nectar plants and overwintering sites are the major factors in the decline in numbers of monarchs, she added.
Monarchs are amazing and they are important pollinators in our world and their conservation is important, she said. Helping them helps other pollinators as well, she noted. Monarchs have amazed a generation of people. “We have a responsibility to be stewards of this natural world and to help monarchs survive for future generations.”
While it rained Sunday and the monarchs at Frohring Meadows were hiding in vegetation, Ms. Drockton had some monarchs inside to tag for their trip to Mexico.
She displayed milkweed leaves eaten by the monarch caterpillars. “If we ate as much as a caterpillar does, we’d be the size of a school bus in two weeks because a monarch grows to its full size in two weeks. They eat and eat and eat.”
They get so large that they outgrow their skins and shed their skins five times.
Monarch eggs hatch in one to three days. They are caterpillars for 10 to 14 days and then a chrysalis for 10 to 14 days before emerging as adult butterflies. As adults the monarchs only live a short time.
Those that travel south to Mexico live about nine to 10 months and it takes several generations of butterflies to make it up north, Ms. Drockton said.
Ms. Drockton was joined by Geauga Park District volunteers Chuck Fletcher and Sonny Williams. Mr. Fletcher noted it takes butterflies longer to get north. They follow the milkweeds and keep moving north. “They can’t lay their eggs without milkweed.”
The caterpillars live on common and swamp milkweed and the butterfly weed, while the butterfly bush is good for nectar. There is a good growth of milkweed at Frohring Meadows and monarchs can be seen there during sunny days.
The golden rod, asters and other flowers at Frohring also provide monarchs, butterflies and moths with a plentiful source of nectar late in the season.
The monarch butterflies are preparing now to fly to Mexico arriving sometime in November, Ms. Drockton said. They are coming now from Canada and resting near Lake Erie.
“You will see them clustering at the lake shore, and as they warm up with the sun they will continue their journey south.
“One of the places you can see them resting is the cottonwood trees at Mentor Headlands,” she said. Millions, including those at Frohring Meadows, will be going to the same 12 locations in Mexico.
The same butterflies that make it to Mexico will spend the winter there and then will start flying north when the days get longer in the spring. It takes several generations to get to the Great Lakes, she noted.
And now, the “children and grandchildren” of the butterflies that arrived here will be starting to go south, first to the milkweeds in Texas where they lay eggs.
For Sunday’s event, Ms. Drockton explained how to tell the difference between a boy and a girl monarch, with the boy’s showing two black spots on their wings. “We refer to them as ‘daddy dots.’ The girls don’t have them. The boys have thin veins on their wings, while the girls have noticeably thicker ones.”
Claire and her younger brother Jack put on butterfly wings as part of learning about the monarchs. She played the monarch migration game which leads children step by step from Geauga County to Mexico. The monarchs can meet a variety of fates, including being hit by vehicles and finding no nectar in a suburban neighborhood.
The children learned about how stickers with identification numbers are attached to the butterflies here and when found in Mexico the person who tagged the monarch is notified. Ms. Drockton had tagged a monarch at the Great Geauga County Fair in 2017 and it was found at its winter home in February of 2018, 2,000 miles south of Geauga County.
Claire, who was wearing a purple jacket, a flower color monarchs love, took one of the monarchs to release outside. It was brought to the event by Ms. Drockton.
The rain deterred the butterfly and they brought it back in to release on a nicer day, Mr. Williams noted. “It doesn’t want to fly today,” he said.
All research on monarchs helps to preserve their populations. It was Dr. Fred Urquart who studied the monarchs and discovered in 1975 the monarchs’ destination in Mexico. “Before that we had no idea where they were going,” Ms. Drockton said.
In Mexico, monarchs in the millions cling to trees. She noted how she just met a couple from Bainbridge who visited the monarchs’ roosting area in Mexico which has become a tourist destination. The monarchs stay dormant from November through March.
In Mexico, the monarchs mate and the females make it back to Texas, Ms. Drockton said.
Mr. Fletcher noted how farming practices, including use of herbicides, led to the demise of the milkweed plants. Now some farmers are deliberately planting milkweed and growing them as a crop for fiber.
Geauga Park District Naturalist Tami Gingrich raises milkweed and gives the plants away at the Geauga Park District’s West Woods Nature Center in Russell Township.
Property owners can make monarch way stations by planting milkweed and nectar sources. They can become certified by registering at https://www.monarchwatch.org.
Mr. Fletcher noted that the state of Ohio is leaving some places un-mowed along the highway median strips. It can be good habitat for butterflies, pollinators and wildlife.
Another monarch butterfly session will be presented by the park district from 12:30 to 4 p.m. this Sunday at Orchard Hills Park in Chester Township.