The other day while walking through the Botanic Garden at Historic Barns Park I took note of their designated Butterfly Garden. As I detailed the beauty to my mom later that day, she said, “They’ll be migrating soon. You should go back.” To be surrounded by butterflies in the cooler, late summer sunshine sounded like bliss. Good idea. But before I do I wanted to learn all about why they do.
Cyndie Roach is the curator and owner of GT Butterfly House and Zoo in Williamsburg. Who better to talk with about the secret world of butterflies in Northern Michigan? The secret world of monarchs, specifically. To question where they are going, one must understand first why they come here.
The monarchs that we will see in the next two weeks are the product of a generations-long journey from Mexico. The journey begins with the Oyamel firs, a kind of tree that only grows at high altitudes and there are only a limited number of Oyamel fir forests.
“These are really old trees, we’re talking over 100 years old, and these trees house butterflies by the millions each winter. No one really knows why. This is one of those unknown pieces of natural discovery that we didn’t find out about until the ‘70s when somebody got the bright idea to put tiny little stickers on the wings of these butterflies and then see where they end up. Are the same ones in Mexico the ones here in the United States? Yes, there’s actually multi-generations of Monarchs that make the trip.”
They come here in late June after a spring spent flying north. They fly over the Gulf with their first stop being in the Texas panhandle area.
“They land there, take a break, and breed by the millions, lay eggs, and then they die. That super generation has lived all winter and is now ready to make that trip to Texas. So that first generation born in the United States will know to start flying north when they’re born.”
The entire butterfly birthing process takes 30 days. Part of the inherent will to go north has to do with milkweed. It’s the plant that signals them home.
“It’s the single host plant, meaning the caterpillar needs to eat it to become a butterfly. They’re looking for milkweed to lay their eggs on. We don’t even have Milkweed growing yet in the early parts of spring. It doesn’t come up until May and June, so what’s great is that as our spring comes on and things start to get warmer, that’s what’s welcoming the monarch to the area.”
The second generation of monarchs that were born in Texas makes it to the midline of the States, roughly around the Rocky Mountains where their babies will be born, and like their parents and grandparents before them – they’ll know to keep flying north.
“By the time they reach us we’re looking at the third generation typically. So it’s their grandchildren we’re now seeing arrive in Michigan.”
Remember that milkweed Cyndie was talking about? Northern Michigan provides milkweed that some of those third-generation monarchs will use to lay their own eggs. So the butterflies that are going back down to Mexico are the fourth generation of those first butterflies coming from the Oyamel fir forests.
“That’s why it’s so important that we as Michiganders, specifically up here in Northern Michigan, provide as much milkweed habitat as we can for these amazing creatures. We play such an important role, because not only are we the ones who see them come in in the spring, but we help them create a lifecycle.”
Milkweed plays an important role in aiding the monarchs in their generational journey, but also, being cautious with fertilizer and lawn care products. The monarch butterfly population has declined 90 percent over the past two decades, which is directly related to the milkweed population being destroyed.
“You take away the habitat of the caterpillar, you remove the ability for the monarch butterfly to survive. Large agribusinesses and even personal residents started removing flocks of milkweed, calling it invasive and pulling it out of their garden. Taking it out of ditches and roadsides. Spraying it with Roundup Large agribusinesses in the Midwest managed to wipe out 80% of the milkweed in the United States.”
Systemic pesticides are pollinator killers. Systemic in this case means they are absorbed into a flower throughout their entire system, root to petal. Neonicotinoids specifically impact pollinators central nervous system, so that when they interact with a treated plant, they’ll face paralysis followed by death. It’s a pesticide used commonly, especially anywhere with extensive landscaping.
“Golf courses, shopping centers, entire neighborhoods with HOAs, they’re responsible for a huge part of it. By looking away and saying they would rather have a green lawn and flowering plants that kill pollinators than do the right thing.”
Cyndie says the best way to do your part at protecting the declining monarchs and other pollinators is to look at what you’re using in your lawn care products. Being intentional in finding safe, or natural alternatives can make a huge impact. Pollinators don’t just provide us with healthy plants and flowers, they help feed many other animals on the food chain and are an essential part of producing meat as well.
To watch the butterflies as they leave, check out areas with lots of wildflowers, tall grass and milkweed. The Butterfly Garden at Historic Barns Park is a great place to watch. To do your part to keep them alive and well, take care to look at what products you’re using on your grass, and maybe let a few wildflowers of your own grow out in the backyard next summer. Little changes make big impacts.
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