My daughter and I were out in our yard last week playing with our dogs and enjoying the sunny afternoon. I spotted a tiger swallowtail perched on our lilac bush nectaring. Grace asked, “Can I try to touch it?” I replied “Well…it probably won’t hold still long enough, but you can try. You have to be very careful as the pretty colors are actually scales that rub off easily.” She approached softly and slowly raised her hand with one finger out and touched the butterfly…and it just sat there nectaring without regard. It must have known somehow she was a kid who meant no harm. It eventually flew off unfazed. I did not have a camera. I hope that memory lasts a long time for both of us.
That butterfly captured her imagination in a way most other animals can’t. Its coloration, approachability, beauty and charisma were all right there at her fingertips. I have struggled for two decades trying to find out what it takes to create enough spark and interest in early-succession habitat – thickets, weeds, wildflowers and native grasses – to have a habitat renaissance catch fire and burn like a rank field of broom straw in March (and then burn long like a bag of charcoal).
This brings me to the story of the Monarch butterfly. A story of more fascination I challenge any of the best fiction writers to top. At first glance they appear to be delicate sky jewels, flitting about rapidly if we are lucky enough to see one. An investigation into their life cycle will reveal an organism that is anything but delicate. I urge you to do a search of your own on their life cycle. One fascinating aspect of Monarch ecology is their migration to wintering grounds, in some cases exceeding 3,000 miles.That alone would be drama enough for most of us. Imagine trying to travel that distance through rainstorms, high winds, and other natural conflagrations – it is hard enough in a car, much less in the tiny package we call a Monarch. But this is only one part of their amazing life. You see, it is the fourth generation, typically, that does the fall migration back to Mexico, California and other wintering areas. Those that make the fall trip and successfully overwinter, then take flight in spring heading north into the vastness of Texas and other areas. That part is not so hard to understand. They flew down that way in fall and now they fly back in spring. But they must continue north and continue to breed because those that arrive and breed first, their offspring are not the ones that return to overwinter. It takes several more generations to insure the last one has the longevity to return to Mexico, overwinter and then fly north and breed the following spring.
My mind had to rest on that thought for some time before I could truly grasp its meaning. In terms of salmon, most of us know they are spawned in the headwaters of cold streams. They leave those streams and go out into the ocean for sometimes a few years, then return to their headwaters to spawn themselves. A striking journey in its own right, it still only spans one generation. The same generation that left the stream came back. The Monarch life cycle spans four generations. How does that last generation know to return to Mexico? How do they know how to get there? And how do they then know to return north in spring? I have to think more is at work than pure genetics.
As we know, unfortunately their populations have declined steeply in the last few decades; as have many other pollinating insects, most notably many of our native bees. With regards to Monarchs, declines in milkweed (asclepias sp.) plants have contributed greatly to this crash. Monarchs have another interesting aspect in their ecology – they lay their eggs on milkweed because their larvae after hatching must feed on milkweed to store energy enough to develop into pupae which is the chrysalis stage of their four stage true metamorphosis – egg, larvae, pupae, and adult. And while milkweed is the main theme of the story the public has gotten, there is much more to Monarch habitat. It turns out that native bees, butterflies and bobwhites share one thing in common … many of them need diverse early-succession habitat to survive. Many of the same things we prescribe for creating and maintaining bobwhite cover like prescribed burning and rotational disking, also provide for an enormous number of pollinating insects.These critters need flowering plants available for nectar throughout the entire warm season.
Our DGIF staff has done quite a bit of prescribed burning this spring on some of our wildlife management areas. Over the last month I have spent a great deal of time getting photographs of some of these burned areas. It is amazing how rapidly the vegetation greens up after prescribed fire. Two weeks ago, while photographing in an old field we’d burned off to rejuvenate it, I saw two pairs of zebra swallowtails, heard at least four different gobblers thundering, heard one quail covey giving their morning covey call, and saw too many types of songbirds to name.
What does it takes to ignite enough interest in these habitats to make a difference? Maybe the Monarch is the butterfly that will save the bee that might save the bobwhite?
May 4, 2015