Monarch butterflies get a helping hand

Rob Zimmer Special Contributor
Now Media Group

One of my favorite summer memories as a child was exploring the milkweed patches near our cottage in Marinette County seeking out the beautiful monarch caterpillar.

Feeding upon the leaves of milkweed plants, these caterpillars, striped in black, gold and white, with telltale black whiskers, promised a future generation of regal monarchs.

My grandmother taught us to collect a few of these beautiful caterpillars and raise them to enjoy the full journey from caterpillar to chrysalis to adult, winged butterfly.

Each summer, plastic gallon jars or screened boxes would boast a handful of monarchs in transition during July and August.

Once the butterflies emerged, we would release them into the wild where they would fly free to produce a new generation or prepare for the long journey south to Mexico.

The experience of raising monarch caterpillars to adult butterflies was not only fun and enjoyable, but educational and deeply rich in memories.

I still remember the feel of the rubbery caterpillars against my skin, the slight scratching of the adult monarchs feet. The beautiful golden highlights etched upon the soft jade chrysalis.

Unfortunately, 2016, according to many observers around the state, has seen a much lower population of monarchs than the last few seasons.

While this season was expected to bring high monarch numbers after a midwinter survey on the wintering grounds found an explosive increase over the year previous, this has not played out.

Researchers believe this is due to a severe snowstorm and cold snap that hit the mountains of central Mexico just as monarch butterflies were preparing to leave on their journey north.

Monarch Angels

To help rebuild numbers, monarch enthusiasts and organizations across the state are raising and releasing monarchs into the wild.

An army of volunteers and other organizations collect monarch eggs and larva, raising them in protected conditions, then releasing them back into the wild upon emerging as adults.

This work goes a long way in helping monarchs increase in number, as well as research and study of the monarch population. Monarch breeders pay special attention to wildflower plots, food choices, nectar choices, appearance dates and other factors, all with the goal of helping further understand the plight of the Monarch.

At the Butterfly Gardens of Wisconsin, Appleton, owner Jack Voight releases and tags hundreds of monarchs each summer. Tagging monarchs also provides valuable information when tagged butterflies are recorded and data collected on their movements and timing.

Many monarch enthusiasts also provide monarch plants and seeds free to individuals and organizations who wish to plant milkweeds to attract monarchs to their property.

Ann Shebasta, Mishicot, provides hundreds of milkweed seeds annually to attendees at her monarch programs. She also raises and releases hundreds of monarchs each summer season. In addition, her gardens and landscape are overflowing with a number of milkweed species, as well as other wildflowers suitable as nectar plants for adults.

Time will tell if monarch numbers pick up over the next few weeks as the peak of monarch breeding season takes place.

Soon, the annual monarch migration will begin, with millions of monarchs potentially journeying to the mountains of central Mexico through late summer and fall.

Do your part to help sustain the population on their journey south by including a variety of late season nectar plants in your beds, borders and container gardens.

Some of the best choices include Mexican sunflower, tall verbena, liatris, bee balm, zinnias, Joe-pye weed, asters, purple coneflower and others.

Find Rob Zimmer online at www.robzimmeroutdoors.com. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/RobZimmerOutdoors.