Local pollinator plots, monitoring part of monarch butterfly survey effort

Cacapon State Park summer naturalist Gerald Michaels is seen with a milkweed plant that has a monarch instar caterpillar on it.

Cacapon State Park has an official pollinator zone where monarch butterfly research is conducted.

by Kate Evans

Some 75% of flowering plants and almost 75% of food crops depend on pollinators. The monarch butterfly and other butterflies, bees and pollinators are in danger from urban development, loss of   farmland and habitat, climate change and the use of pesticides and weed killers that kill plants on which their larvae feed and where they find nectar.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing the monarch butterfly as endangered as its populations have dropped by 80% to 98% in some places.

Citizen volunteers are creating monarch waystations in their backyards with milkweeds and perennial wildflowers to save pollinators.

Cacapon State Park has created a pollinator field where the monarch butterfly population is being studied and now has a monarch and pollinator garden outside of its Nature Center.

Their August 16-17 Pollinator Weekend included programs and films about monarchs, butterflies and moths, wildflower meadow tours and native plants.

Joette Borzik, West Virginia Master Naturalist and Monarch Alliance board member, talked about monarchs at the state park during the event.

Borzik said she has 1.1 acres at home where she’s created a monarch butterfly waystation that

provides milkweed and the wildflowers that the butterflies need for nectar. She’s seeing monarchs there.

Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on milkweed and monarch larvae will only eat milkweed.

“If you have no milkweed, you’ll have no monarchs,” she stressed.

Three types of milkweed do best in our area-the common milkweed, the swamp milkweed and butterfly weed, Borzik said. The common milkweed has the biggest leaves and gets really tall. If you put it somewhere it can spread, it will. The common milkweed likes full sun and has a big showy flower that blooms for a couple of weeks.

Swamp milkweed has a beautiful pink flower and can bloom two or three times if it’s watered and cared for, she said. It usually occurs around wetlands and doesn’t spread. The leaves are small and narrow and it can’t feed as many monarch larvae, but it definitely attracts them.

The butterfly weed has very showy bright orange leaves. The leaves are very small, it doesn’t spread and that the deer will eat it, Borzik said. Many people put a fence around the plants to protect them.

She noted that milkweed flowers will also attract other butterflies, bees and other pollinators.

Other top native plants that attract monarch butterflies are Joe Pye Weed, blue mistflower, aster, New York ironweed, coneflower (echinacea), boneset, mountain mint, wild bergamot (bee balm) and goldenrod.

The monarchs’ journey

Monarch butterflies migrate south and west each fall to escape the cold. The monarchs that overwinter in Mexico aren’t the ones we see in West Virginia and Maryland, Borzik said. Those usually navigate up the coast.   It takes three to four generations of monarchs to get here.

A male monarch butterfly with its stunning colors is pictured on Joe Pye Weed.
photo courtesy of Joette Borzik

The monarchs mate in March, fly and stop in Texas, Oklahoma and other southern states and lay their eggs. It takes around a month for the eggs to become a butterfly. The third generation shows up locally in large numbers in July, but she’s seen caterpillars in May. The fourth generation is the one that migrates, she said.

GMO Round-up Ready seed kills all milkweed, insects, caterpillars and adult butterflies in fields as does use of Glyphosate weedkillers in people’s backyards, Borzik said.

Borzik said that there are also threats to the monarch butterflies overwintering grounds in Mexico.

With climate change there, bad weather and snowstorms kill many monarchs. Trees and forests are being cut down there for wood and heat. Monarch butterflies huddle on trees in big clumps as they overwinter.

Focus on monarchs

The Monarch Alliance is a project of the Potomac Valley Audubon Society. Their focus is educational programs and teaching people about saving the monarchs and their habitat, she said.

The Monarch Alliance has a grant program that people can apply for to get plants for monarch waystations. Local churches, schools and hospitals are priorities for funding. Grant applications begin September 1 and close November 15. More information is available on their website.

“It would be wonderful if we had communities with everyone with a waystation,” Borzik said.

The top things people can do to protect monarchs and pollinators are plant native milkweed, shrubs and trees on their property, she said. Don’t use pesticides and grow things organically.

Cacapon State Park plots

Cacapon State Park naturalist Valerie Chaney has led several monarch studies of the park’s wildflower pollinator zone this year in conjunction with the nationwide Monarch Joint Venture.

Chaney said the surveys counted the number of milkweeds, blooming plants and adult monarchs in the pollinator zone. Seasonal park naturalist Gerald Michaels assisted.

Chaney worked with the Blue Ridge Chapter of the Wild Ones, a native plant group, to plant the wildflower meadow milkweed garden by the Nature Center at the park. The garden includes butterfly milkweed, common milkweed, swamp milkweed and whorled milkweed along with echinacea and other wildflowers. Last week, she had 10 to 15 monarch caterpillars in the garden to show visitors.

Park meadows include echinacea, black-eyed Susans, native columbine, wild geranium, native coral honeysuckle, anise hyssop, gayfeather and New England aster. Their blooms span over the summer and fall and attract monarch, painted lady and swallowtail butterflies, various bees and hummingbirds, Chaney said.

“It’s so beautiful to come to work,” she said. The park now has eight acres of wildflowers meadows and monarch waystations.

Chaney wants to do some surveys every month and expand the pollinator acreage that’s being researched. She’s looking for volunteers to help.

Participants can earn monarch scout patches and certificates. Schools, adults, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and other organizations are invited to get involved.

Chaney is doing Adult Monarch and Milkweed and Blooming Plant surveys on Friday, September 13 from 9 a.m. to 12 noon as part of the September 13-14 Monarch Migration Weekend at Cacapon State Park. If interested in helping, call Chaney at 304-258-1022 extension 5209 or come to the Nature Center at 9 a.m. on September 13. People can come for whatever time they can give.

The Monarch Migration Weekend includes several Monarchs in the Meadows tours, crafts, films and discussions about the monarchs and their journey at the Nature Center.