2011-05-25 / Front Page

Plant now for monarchs in the fall

By Katherine Houstoun

Judy Nickels tends to her butterfly garden at home. 
Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer Judy Nickels tends to her butterfly garden at home. Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer Judy Nickels just bid farewell to springtime houseguests, but she’s already thinking ahead to their return in the fall. Luckily, they don’t demand much – just some wellwatered, well-tended greenery in the garden.

Come mid-August, monarch butterflies will travel through Richmond on their customary journey from Canada to Mexico, stopping on certain butterfly-friendly plants, including common milkweed, butterfly bush, zinnias and lantana, along the way.

“The milkweed is the host plant,” explains Nickels, a kindergarten teacher at Crestwood Elementary, which has established a butterfly way station on its grounds. “Monarchs only lay eggs on milkweed.”

Other plants, including butterfly bush, zinnias, lantana, goldenrod, salvia and asters, provide nectar, helping butterflies build up enough fat to power their flight to Mexico. Flowers planted in the late spring and tended to during the hot summer months should be well-established enough to attract this year’s group of migratory butterflies in the fall.

A monarch caterpillar crawls on a leaf. 
Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer A monarch caterpillar crawls on a leaf. Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer While the monarch butterflies are a treat to look at, they can also provide a front-row view of science at work. No other butterflies in the world migrate like the monarchs of North America, according to Monarch Watch, an educational outreach program based at the University of Kansas. They travel much farther than other tropical butterflies – up to 3,000 miles – and are the only butterflies to make a long, two-way migration every year.

This fall, the monarchs will be on their return trip to Mexico. They already flew through Richmond once this spring on their way to spend the summer in Canada, many of them leaving plenty of caterpillar eggs behind.

Nickels has about a dozen caterpillars in a netted butterfly enclosure in her classroom, while more can be found in other Crestwood classrooms. Teachers bring them in from the school’s milkweed garden and allow their students to watch the amazing metamorphosis from chubby caterpillar to regal butterfly.

“You take [students’] natural sense of wonder and develop it by bringing in something real that shows them science, life and death, metamorphosis,” says Nickels, who wrote and self-published a children’s book, “A Monarch’s Journey,” on the subject in 1995. “When they see it, touch it, become a part of it, they’re going to remember it.”

Crestwood Elementary also participates in tagging butterflies. When they see a butterfly come through in the fall, teachers will place a small sticker on its wing to help the University of Kansas track migration. The school was lucky enough to have one of its tagged butterflies recovered in Mexico in 2003; with 300 million butterflies making the journey, 100,000 tagged and only 1,200 recovered, that’s an amazing case of beating the odds.

Those interested in learning about monarch migration, establishing a monarch way station and tagging butterflies can use information-packed resources like Monarch Watch’s website and Journey North, a free online educational service that studies wildlife migration. Attracting butterflies doesn’t have to involve more than planting the right plants, but, should you become interested, there is a host of information to absorb and activities in which to participate.

“Once you see the magic behind it, it’s hard not to get inspired,” says Nickels.

Butterfly resources

Journey North

Monarch Watch

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