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A monarch mystery in the north woods

Local butterfly expert John Weber said placement of the monarch on the endangered list is a wake-up call to raise awareness so people can take action to help the colorful butterfly before it’s too late.

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Most likely a migratory female, this monarch is nectaring on wild bergamot, a late-season flower.
Contributed / John Weber
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John Weber of rural Nevis has been studying butterflies for more than 40 years.

Weber said placement of the monarch on the endangered list is a wake-up call to raise awareness so people can take action to help the colorful butterfly before it’s too late.

Most summer days find Weber out in the field meticulously documenting the activity of butterflies and dragonflies in handwritten notes and in photographs.

He doesn’t have a computer or use the internet, but he has been collecting data about butterflies for 28 years. “I’m a citizen scientist,” he said. “I’m out in the field gathering pieces of the puzzle in the summer. In January or February when the dust has settled from the season, I’ll try to figure out how the puzzle pieces fit together.”

Monarchs by the numbers

According to the Xerces Society’s yearly Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count data, there were more than 800,000 monarchs spotted in 1997, 564,349 in 1998 and 267,574 in 1999. The lowest number counted was 1,899 in 2020. In 2021, there appeared to be a slight rebound, with 247,237 western monarchs spotted.

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“They are at the forefront of efforts to preserve monarchs in North America,” Weber said. “Having the monarchs on the endangered species list is beneficial in many ways, but it will also stir up some controversy because of issues with agriculture. I hope we can get it turned around in time. It’s a very daunting challenge.”

This is the 25th year that John and his wife, Marlene, have conducted weekly Monarch Larvae Monitoring Projects visits, looking for all forms of monarchs: egg, five caterpillar stages and adults.

Although the current season is still underway, the Webers rank 2022 as probably the poorest.

During nine visits covering June 5 through July 30, a total of 2,614 common milkweed plants were checked. These are what Weber described as “the very disappointing results” so far: 17 egg instar, 2 first instar caterpillars, 0 second instar, 0 third instar, 1 fourth instar and 2 fifth instar (not seen until one each on July 24 and July 30).

“I’ve been seeing some adult monarchs recently,” Weber said. “In our final summer butterfly count on July 22 in the Bemidji area, we had a total of 406 individual butterflies, and 115 of those were adult monarchs.”

He explained that because we are now in the migratory part of the year, those monarchs may have been from Canada.

The one butterfly effect

Weber described butterflies as an environmental barometer.

“You can view the monarch as the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “They are a keystone species. What’s good for the monarch is good for other pollinators and the birds that feed on those pollinators. It takes only parts per billion of some contaminants to impact butterflies.

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“Seeing the migratory monarch butterfly put on the endangered list released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently should be a wake-up call to everyone.”

According to the IUCN, the next level is critically endangered, followed by extinct in the wild and finally extinct.

Milkweed mystery

Weber said many environmental groups across the country have made efforts to make milkweed more available to the monarchs.

Yet in spite of an abundance of milkweed, there have been very few monarchs feeding on it or evidence of egg laying either.

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A rare sight in 2022, this is a fifth instar monarch caterpillar chomping on common milkweed.
Contributed / John Weber

“There are many eerie things about 2022,” he said. “Wandering through the milkweed, I’ve seen almost no chewing happening this year. It’s a mystery. I have seen some freshly emerged monarchs around here, but how can they be emerging when there’s no sign of chewing on the milkweed caterpillars need to develop?

“It’s almost like under cover of darkness female monarchs are laying eggs clandestinely, and then somehow out of sight these caterpillars are feeding and emerging.”

Weber said milkweed is important to monarchs because eating it gives butterflies a taste that is unappealing to predators.

“If monarchs adapted to laying their eggs somewhere else, it could adapt them out of existence,” he said. “They need that protection.”

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Impacts of climate change

Weber said low numbers of monarchs this year could possibly be attributed to extreme weather in the south, when they were in the process of returning to their northern summer homes, that either killed them or the food sources they depend on.

Monarchs travel almost 2,000 miles from Mexico as far as 120 miles north into Canada. It can take up to two generations for them to reach their destination.

“That is where climate change comes in,” he said. “In some places, it’s causing drought and flooding, when milkweed is emerging and monarchs are migrating. What did those weather events do to butterflies getting ready to emerge and the plants that they depend on? Were some of those plants wiped out? Or did the extreme weather events like heavy rain, hail droughts and flooding between Mexico and Minnesota keep them from getting up here?”

He said this summer’s locally heavy rains may also have taken a toll on butterflies. While walking one of his favorite paths in the Paul Bunyan Forest, north of Nevis and south of Waboose Lake, he has observed miniature waterfalls created by rain runoff.

“What I’m seeing is only freshly emerged butterflies, but no older ones there,” he said. “I think they got flooded out.”

Two monarch seasons

“News articles about the monarch have rightly highlighted the need to plant milkweed,” Weber said. “But there are two phases of a monarch season in this neck of the woods. We have now entered the second phase, where milkweed has pretty much finished blooming. Now, late July into August, the second phase needs to kick in, especially for migratory monarchs.

“They need plants such as wild bergamot, goldenrod, asters, even the despised thistles. But most importantly, the blazing star with the scientific name Liatris. These provide high octane nectar that helps monarchs on their migratory journey to Mexico.

“Early on they need to have the milkweed, but then they need to have those nectars for the second season. Other butterflies can also partake of those late season nectars later in the summer, like they do at the pollinator garden in Nevis.”

How to help

  • Native milkweed seeds may be gathered locally, after the pods burst open, or purchased from the Save Our Monarchs Foundation at saveourmonarchs.org or P.O. Box 390135, Edina, MN 55439. Weber said it is best to scatter native milkweed seeds in an area that has been cleared in the fall, after there is a lasting snow cover to bury them and prevent seeds from blowing away. Snow also provides moisture for germinating in the spring. Tropical milkweed seeds should never be planted as they are not beneficial to monarchs.
  • Create a puddling area in a sunny spot with sand dampened with water on the ground or in a shallow container to help provide male butterflies with minerals needed for reproduction. Include a flat rock for butterflies to rest on when drinking. 
  • Don’t mow grass too short or use pesticides or lawn chemicals. 
  • Provide way stations for migrating monarchs to visit with perennial plantings that are beneficial to nectar sippers. Check with the garden center to make sure plants were not treated with chemicals that could harm caterpillars or butterflies. The National Wildlife Federation has a list of native nectar plants beneficial to pollinators.
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Related Topics: ENDANGERED SPECIESNEVISINSIDE THE OUTDOORS
Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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