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The Nature Corner: Marvelous monarchs

By Ernie Marshall

It is another cold, cloudy February day as I write this. Probably like many of you, I hanker for the return of the warm sun on my face, the releafing of trees in that fresh green of spring, awakening flowers and the butterflies that visit them.

Just to enjoy a bit of spring vicariously, I reread the article in the November 18, 2020 issue of The Coastland Times, “The Elizabethan Gardens: For the love of monarchs.” The article included a gorgeous photo of a monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) feeding on the red blossoms of a milkweed plant. It is a common colorful butterfly, bright orange, with black veining and yellow dots on its wing margins.

The article featured the weekly butterfly “releases” of monarchs “raised” there at the John White Butterfly Center in the Elizabethan Gardens. This is indeed a benefit to decreasing populations of this beautiful butterfly species and a rare nature education opportunity.

The Elizabethan Gardens, as most of my readers already know, are over ten acres of Elizabethan-style gardens located just three miles from Manteo.

The gardens are on the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, the location of the first English settlement in North America in 1587 under Governor John White (commonly referred to as “the Lost Colony”).  [I won’t dally here, since I have written in the past on Indian Heritage Week at Pettigrew State Park where we taught school kids from eastern North Carolina about the Algonkin Native Americans, including their encounter with the Lost Colony. John White’s seventy-some watercolor paintings of the Algonkin people, along with Thomas Harriot’s written accounts, is the most thorough and accurate record in existence of Native Americans.]

The Elizabethan Gardens, with its 500 species of plants, is an ideal place to encounter monarch butterflies. Growing there is an abundance of nectar-providing flowers for monarchs and other butterflies and also different varieties of milkweeds, the plants on which monarch larvae feed.

Butterflies are among the insect groups that undergo a “complete metamorphosis,” a life cycle that journeys from egg, to larva, to pupa, to adult. In the case of butterflies, the larvae are called “caterpillars” and the adults “butterflies.” This means, as The Coastland Times article pointed out, to “raise” butterflies, encourage having more of them, you need to encourage the caterpillars as well as the butterflies they become. [Since many caterpillars are garden and agricultural pests, this can engender a conflict of interests of sorts. My Coastland Times article “Nature Boy and Farm Girl” had some fun with this, regarding my wife’s kitchen herb garden and the black swallowtail caterpillars that were decimating it.]

The plants on which caterpillars feed are referred to as the “host” plant (an amusing name in that a host usually invites the guest). Some caterpillars have a variety of host plants, others, including monarchs, are particular. Monarchs only eat members of the milkweed family. This however, turns out to benefit monarchs, because all milkweeds (genus asclepias) contain substances toxic to most of their bug and bird predators. All four stages of the monarch butterfly species retain these toxins they have ingested. Thus a blue jay, for example, that eats a monarch butterfly or a monarch caterpillar will get quite sick and probably avoid eating that “nasty thing” in the future. On the other hand, the butterflies pollinate the milkweed’s flowers and insures its propagation. So the milkweed-monarch connection turns out to be a symbiotic relationship beneficial to both, which is termed “mutualism.” The you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours or give-some-get-some-back is common in ecosystems. Competition is intertwined with cooperation.

But the plot thickens further. The viceroy butterfly closely resembles the monarch and is thought to do so for the free ride, protection from predators that learn to avoid this species, too, because of the likeness, a trick up nature’s sleeve termed “mimicry.”

The Coastland Times article discussed the monarch’s annual seasonal migration. I’ll say a bit more since, although seasonal migration occurs with birds, whales, sea turtles, fish and many kinds of animals, it does so but sparingly among butterfly species.

The monarch’s migration is uniquely impressive. It summers across the continent as far north as Canada and travels to winter in the Oyamel Forest in Michoacan and Estado de Mexico in central Mexico. This is a distance of as much as 4000 miles, about the distance that our wintering tundra swan travel to our region from Alaska and western Canada. (A smaller population of monarchs west of the Rocky Mountains winter along the California coast.)

The Mexican wintering monarchs “cluster” in numbers estimated at half a billion in trees and on tree trunks in masses of moving, shimmering colors, orange, black and yellow. I have never had the great fortune to witness this, only seen videos and photos. If you could mingle the experience of a waterfall, a rainbow and add some magic, you might come close.

I’ll conclude with a word about monarch conservation. The Coastland Times article dealt with this, but it bears repeating. Here are two fundamental points about providing for butterflies in your yard or gardening space.

Put in appropriate host plants for the caterpillars and flowers/nectar plants for the butterflies. For monarchs, the sole host plants are any members of the milkweed genus. The Elizabethan Gardens offers milkweed plants for sale, and can offer plenty of good advice. My favorite milkweed for its blossoms is butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberose). Other butterfly species will need other host plants, some of which you probably already have in your yard. The Elizabethan Gardens can assist you with this as well.

Avoid using pesticides and herbicides. The former will kill the caterpillars and butterflies, the latter harms the plants they depend upon. Also, they are potentially harmful to pets and humans.

A disclaimer is due for farmers about pesticides and herbicides. Farming has become progressively more dependent on the application of potentially dangerous chemicals. Perhaps such developments as the litigation over Roundup is our wake-up call. Perhaps the day has finally arrived for transitioning to organic farming?

Ernie Marshall taught at East Carolina College for thirty-two years and had a home in Hyde County near Swan Quarter. He has done extensive volunteer work at the Mattamuskeet, Pocosin Lakes and Swan Quarter refuges and was chief script writer for wildlife documentaries by STRS Productions on the coastal U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, mostly located on the Outer Banks. Questions or comments? Contact the author at marshalle1922@gmail.com.

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