Encounter with monarch a conservation story

(Photo courtesy of Steve Pollick)

Nothing beats “making it personal”  when it comes to conservation, and that goes, too, for programs aimed at helping such threatened wild species as the monarch butterfly.

Programs with such unwieldy if necessary titles as Ohio Pollinator Habitat Initiative are worthy of consideration and involvement, if you are not off-put by cumbersome terms, the maze of organizations involved, and such. They call attention to the issue, but plunging into the maze is another matter.

So, I took the Nike option – Just Do It! Forget the need for joining committees, attending meetings. Just do it. A recent incident brought that home to me.

I had been mowing with my self-propelled power mower when, alongside the garage, I spied a flapping, struggling freshly emerged monarch, down in a tangle of thick ground ivy hard against the foundation. It was pumping its wings, but was being harassed by a daddy longlegs. I was not certain that the daddy longlegs was fixing to kill and eat the big monarch, nearly its size, though they have a wide appetite. But it surely was crawling back and forth and all over it.

I moved my hand down and the long-legged predator moved off. So I picked up the monarch to examine it. It was a male, its wings still limp and wet from emergence from its chrysalis (pupal moths spin cocoons). And it seemed stressed. What to do. Since I picked up the creature, I owned it.

I figured that the logical thing to do would be to place the big orange-and-black insect on a fresh milkweed leaf and see what-next. Then I resumed mowing, checking back periodically.

All summer, as is my wont, I tend a milkweed patch on the back 40, hoping for better success than prior years, when it seems that an abundance of assassin bugs, Japanese beetles, spiders, and various other “bugs” overwhelmed my patch. I hardly had found any monarch caterpillars, let alone emergent monarchs, in previous years.

This summer, however, the stars all lined up and my patch has produced an abundance of the familiar yellow-green-white-black caterpillars. I have collected at least 20 of them for a friend who rears them in the last stages, tags them, and releases them. I also have watched four or five monarchs, including the aforementioned male, emerge and fly off on their own.

This late-summer generation is the traveler generation. Travelers will attempt to fly all the way to at least two known sites in the oyamel fir-clad mountains of central Mexico, where they will enter a hibernating condition called diapause, for winter. It is a nearly impossible migration feat for an insect with a pinhead for a brain. Millions of them will die en route, but a goodly number will make it. Those which survive the mountain winter will reawaken next spring, mate, and head north. It may take maybe two generations or more of monarchs next spring to reach Ohio latitudes, so the ones that arrive here in a way they will be “flying blind” to my Froggy Bottom bailiwick. It would be like my grandfather sailing to America, fathering my Dad, and then seeing me return to southeast Europe to Grandpa’s hometown, even his homestead, with no instructions or directions from Grandpa or Dad, both of whom are long gone. Amazing.

Well, back to the floundering monarch that I, ahem, “rescued.” He sat there for almost a couple of hours. The insect clearly was stressed and stunned from the encounter with the longlegs. Another monarch had emerged from my patch that afternoon and already was fluttering around, flapping strongly and looking for flowering plants on which to draw some nectar-fuel for its long flight ahead.

Eventually, my stunned monarch crawled from the underside of the milkweed leaf on which I had set it, to the top side. Progress.  But it just hunkered there, wings folded up, together. Whenever I checked on its status, I would give the bottom of the milkweed leaf a soft bump, and finally the monarch started flapping and pumping its wings. Maybe it would recover after all.

Finally, I finished my mowing chore and went back for another look. The big bright butterfly, its colors not yet faded by wear and tear, still sat, seemingly waiting for encouragement. So I gently bumped the end of its abdomen, and presently it started flapping rapidly and was aloft.

It beat south, swooped over my pond, and jinked left between some tall Norway spruce. And was gone. I have no idea whether that monarch will reach Mexico or not. But for a couple of hours on an afternoon, I had connected with it personally.

That is what makes conservation come alive. Get your hands dirty. Get involved.

Categories: Ohio – Steve Pollick

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