Raising Monarchs No Longer a Lofty Initiative

By TERESA HAGAN | Sep 11, 2019
Photo by: Gail Travers Monarch butterflies alight on a Surf City garden. Boosting a declining population with in-captivity breeding is now discouraged.

Back in 2016 when I started the Monarch Butterfly Project for the Garden Club of LBI, I thought I was doing a good thing.

Everyone had noticed that these orange and black beauties that once covered our island had become scarcer and scarcer. A lot of us wondered what was going on and a little research told us.

Of course, climate change (heavy rains, strong winds, hail and extreme temperatures) plays a big part. A few years ago, one frost killed 80 percent of the monarch population.

Loss of habitat is another big factor. Since the early ’90s, malls, housing developments and shopping centers have destroyed an area four times the size of Illinois on the migration routes alone. These flyways are where the monarchs stop to eat and rest on their 3,000-mile, two-month journey to (and from) Mexico.

But, by far, the most detrimental to all wildlife health are the “cides” – which literally means “killers of.” Herbicides and pesticides don’t discriminate, killing every bug (including beneficial insects) and plant in their path (especially milkweed). It’s this milkweed that is so necessary for monarch propagation since it’s the only plant females will lay their eggs on.

Further research found that LBI was not alone in missing its monarchs. In the last 20 years the population has declined by 90 percent, and the survival rate in the wild was dismal – a mere 10 percent.

The solution seemed a no-brainer: plant more milkweed and raise more monarchs. That’s when the Monarch Butterfly Project was born. Its purpose was twofold: to bring awareness to the monarch’s plight and to establish sustainable breeding stations.

That first year, I hand-raised and released 59 butterflies. And believe me when I tell you there is nothing more thrilling than harvesting that tiny egg, nurturing it through puberty and finally watching your baby take off from your hand.

In fact, it’s so addictive that last summer I released 339, which, by my calculations, amounted to 3,390 in the wild!

I was feeling pretty good about myself and then this spring as I was getting ready to collect eggs, a bomb exploded in the monarch universe.

A study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that breeding monarchs in captivity “disrupts critical aspects of their migratory behavior.” In other words, they don’t know north from south and thus fail to head to Mexico for the winter. It seems being indoors, even for a short period, changes their genetic makeup.

None of us wanted to believe it. Maybe, we thought at first, the study applied just to commercially raised monarchs, the kind sold to schools or released at weddings.

But as you read on, the article clearly states “captive breeding both commercially and by summertime hobbyists causes migratory behavior to be lost.”

Some friends still won’t believe it and told me they’ll continue to raise monarchs by hand. But I just couldn’t do it. The thought of my poor butterflies going in circles without a compass was just too haunting.

This summer I removed the hand-raising information from the garden club website.

Instead, I planted more than 100 milkweed plants in my garden and decided to let nature take its course. At times I had more than 20 females circling and laying. It was a gorgeous sight!

I’d like to say I found dozens of caterpillars clinging to my plants, but the sad truth is my success rate plummeted. I suspect the crows were to blame.

However, I’m not giving up. I never use “cides.” I’m planting even more milkweed. And I’m working on an anti-crow outdoor enclosure.

Do I miss hand-raising? You bet! Am I tempted to bring my eggs inside? Absolutely! Will I? Not until the next study, which, with any luck, will disprove this last one – as studies often do. Until then, I’ll just have to trust Mother Nature.

Teresa Hagan lives in North Beach.









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