May 1 wasn’t just the start of a new month and of spring weather, finally. For the 30 youngsters and four adults who attended the Milkweed Mud Pies program at the Beaver Creek Wildlife Education Center, it was a start to helping monarch butterflies survive and thrive.
Monarchs will only breed on milkweed plants. They lay eggs the size of a pinhead on the underside of the leaves. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars eat the leaves until they are big enough to form a chrysalis, then emerge as adults. The whole process takes about a month.
The mud pies program provided participants with balls of local clay mixed with potting soil and seeds for three of the five kinds of milkweed native to Ohio: common milkweed, swamp milkweed and butterfly weed.
“The kids would squish the mud pie, choose their seeds, then squish again,” said Eileen Dray-Bardon, a volunteer at the center, who led the program. “They could then choose to plant them in the center’s rain garden, or take them home.”
They also took home their choice of “host plants,” like zinnias and goldenrod. Those plants provide nectar that not only benefits monarchs but pollinators such as bees, moths, wasps, beetles, hummingbirds and other kinds of butterflies.
“The nectar is sugar-rich, giving the pollinators energy and nourishment,” Dray-Bardon explained. “Their activity within the blossoms provides fertilization from stamen to stigma at the same time they’re feeding.”
Generations of monarchs
The monarchs that winter in Mexico start returning to the United States in early March, laying eggs mostly in southern states. Those offspring go on to breed in states to the north and in southern Canada, wherever milkweed is available.
Adult monarchs live between two and six weeks, spending most of their time and energy mating and laying eggs. Ohio usually has two or three generations of monarchs born here; in southern Ohio, they might squeeze in a fourth.
It’s the last generation of monarchs that migrates to central Mexico in the fall — although scientists still don’t know how they find their way, since they’ve never been there before. Unlike previous generations, they live eight or nine months, long enough to make it back to the United States and lay eggs in early spring.
“Ohio and the heartland area is vital for building populations of late-summer monarchs,” said Cheryl Mattevi, who led the Grow a Butterfly Garden” program earlier in the day. “The ones we’re raising to become adults in September and October are the ones flying to Mexico.”
This last generation of monarchs needs not only milkweed, but also those nectar-producing plants to provide energy for their long trip. So do the monarchs that stop here on their way to Mexico from Canada, a distance of more than 2,000 miles.
Mattevi taught geology at Kent State Salem and also did consulting for environmental projects. That got her interested in water quality, so it’s no coincidence that she adopted the rain garden at the wildlife center.
Rain gardens are designed to collect water from paved areas like roads and parking lots. Or, in this case, from the roof of the building that is home to the largest natural history display between Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
“Water coming off the roof looks clean but it can cause damage from too much volume,” Mattevi said. Being directed to the garden through downspouts “slows the water down so it doesn’t overwhelm the storm drain system and get into the local streams.”
The wildlife center’s rain garden consists mostly of prairie plants that can tolerate dry spells and require little coddling. But prairie plants also make for good butterfly and pollinator gardens, she said. Coneflowers and daisies, for instance, are favorites of monarchs and other butterflies. “
A butterfly is very happy if flowers face up and are flat so they can land easily,” Mattevi said. “Plus, each flower has a cluster of tiny flowers at the center, so there are dozens of nectar sources.”
Clovers and violets are considered weeds in lawns, but are valuable to butterflies. Goldenrod is also a vital source of energy for those flying south. And butterfly gardens needn’t consist only of perennials. Annuals like cosmos, zinnias and marigolds work too.
“Butterflies need plants that bloom at various times so that whenever they visit, they can find an energy source,” she said.
It’s estimated that the monarch population has declined 90% since the 1990s because of pesticides, herbicides, and loss of habitat, though monarchs are not yet listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which is monitoring monarch populations, encourages folks to plant butterfly and pollinator gardens with both milkweed and native flowering plants.
“Pollinator gardens are a big deal right now,” Mattevi said. “Start at your local nursery, or talk to someone at a wildlife center. Some may be giving away seeds and plants.”
This is what they did at the Beaver Creek wildlife center, which is run entirely by volunteers and is funded only by grants, donations, gift shop receipts and local fundraising. Participants in the butterfly garden program took home tropical milkweed, coral bell and black-eyed Susan plants.
Dorothy Reynolds, another volunteer, was responsible for the tropical milkweed. Reynolds harvested seeds from plants she’d purchased at a local greenhouse. She gave them to Kathy Catrell, treasurer of the wildlife center, who gave them to John Garwood at the Columbiana County Career & Technical Center. He in turn gave them to the juniors and seniors in the landscape and environmental design program, who grew them in a greenhouse.
“They were beautiful,” Reynolds said of the students’ results. “They have yellow and red flowers. Butterflies love them.”
As its name implies, tropical milkweed is not native to Ohio. Unlike native milkweeds, which are perennial, tropical milkweed is an annual, at least up here in the frigid north. But it still works for monarch breeding.
Reynolds knows all about that. “Oh my heavens, I’ve been raising butterflies for 25 years,” she said. “I probably raised 600 monarchs last year.”
“Raising” refers to examining milkweed plants on her property in Mahoning County and along rural roads, looking for tiny eggs or caterpillars under the leaves. When she finds some, she takes the leaves home and puts them in storage containers with screens on top.
“I keep feeding them fresh milkweed and they do the work,” she said. “They eat, grow, and form a chrysalis, then a butterfly comes out.”
Reynolds carefully puts each new adult butterfly onto a flower to take its picture, though they often fly away before she can snap the photo. Though she doesn’t garden herself, she is all for the pollinator gardens that are increasingly popping up in parks, nature centers, schools, businesses and backyards. She emphasized that monarchs need both milkweed and flowering plants in those gardens.
“The butterflies need the nectar from those plants for energy,” she said. “If both kinds of plants are available, the monarchs will stay.”
These gardens have benefits for humans, too. Sometimes as she walks through the milkweed, Reynolds spots a monarch laying eggs.
“It’s an awesome thing to watch,” she said. “When you observe that, it’s a wonderful feeling.”
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