Thom Smith: Be on the lookout for arrival of the monarchs

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I am writing this column on May 29, Memorial Day, so by the time it arrives for print or digital versions, monarch sightings will have increased. Every June, I begin looking for these butterflies, and recall that the year before last I did not see one.

This past season, I saw only a couple. And this year with monarchs already in New England, it promises to be less dismal. On May 20, one was photographed in Salem, Mass., and on May 24 one was seen in Burke, Vt.

If you want to keep track of their arrivals near you, go to www.learner.org/jnorth/monarch. This is one of the better "citizen science" sites, where you not only are able to track monarch butterfly and hummingbird migrations, but also contribute your findings. The site is rich with topics, and one I enjoy is tracking butterflies tagged in the fall by school children. The butterflies are found migrating north the following spring.

Although numbers seen will be significantly lower than a decade ago, these iconic butterflies have by now expanded across one billion acres of breeding habitat. A few short months ago, they were on three acres of their wintering habitat in Mexico. Monarchs that breed in eastern North America must migrate up to 2,500 miles to wintering sites, while those breeding in the West have it easier, migrating to the California coast for the winter.

A question I have been asked is how long do they live if they migrate south and return the next summer? An individual monarch doesn't. It takes them several generations, sometimes as many as four or five. Upon reaching the mainland in the spring, for instance, during the breeding season their offspring live up to six weeks as they continue pushing north. The final generation can live up to eight months through the winter and return to the southern U.S. in the spring.

This iconic orange-and-black butterfly may be thought of or even named the milkweed butterfly, as it is so dependent upon this "weed." If you were to read the description of its flower in a garden catalog, you might place an order. "Flowers sweet smelling, pink to white, in large bell-like clusters at the tips of the stems and in the axils of the upper leaves." This description is not from a catalog though, but rather from Common Weeds of the United States, published in 1970 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It omits one important fact: Monarch butterflies rely far less on its flowers than its leaves. The monarch goes through four very different stages, the egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and, finally, the adult. Without milkweed, there would be no monarchs, as the newly emerged caterpillars immediately begin feeding exclusively on the leaves of this once-abundant plant. And this very fact is one of the reasons behind the demise of this species.

In spring, summer and fall, their habitat is open areas with flourishing milkweed. Farming practices in America's heartland have changed to extensive use of herbicides to kill all but the primary crop. The same holds true to a lesser extent throughout much of the butterfly's range. We can stop using strong herbicides, like Roundup, in our yards and instead get the exercise hand pulling and uprooting weeds offers. Planting milkweed where none is found will provide an education to children and adults alike, and benefit the monarch population.

INSIGHT INTO WORLD PROBLEMS

My recent enthusiasm comes from being included in the exhibit "FACE THEM," June 2 to 24 at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, 28 Renne Ave., in Pittsfield, Mass., a look at such world problems as animal cruelty, global warming, gun control, human trafficking and population explosion, featuring Barbara Arpante, curator, collage artist; Craig Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, The Boston Globe; Peggy Braun, photographer, printmaker; Roselle Chartock, writer, educator; and John Stanmeyer, photographer, National Geographic. Special guests include the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, Cheryl Jones, 6-year-old artist Eric Nuciforo, and the Massachusetts Audubon Berkshire Sanctuaries.

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