by Roy Lukes

Never Stop Learning About the Monarchs

A monarch caterpillar filling up on the leaf of a common milkweed.

(Continued from Part One)

In all the years I’ve been fascinated with nature, dating back to my childhood in Kewaunee, no topic has created more ongoing interest and a thicker file of notes, newspaper and magazine clippings, letters, etc. over a period of 47 years, than the monarch butterfly. A conservative guess would be that this large attractive creature was the first butterfly learned by its color, lazy sailing flight and interesting habits for millions of people in the U.S. and Canada.

The fact that the larvae of these butterflies eat only the leaves of the many species of milkweed plants means that one can expect to find them in many of the areas where the plants are known to grow naturally. Gray’s Manual of Botany (eighth edition) lists 30 species and forms that can be found in eastern North America extending northward into southern Canada. Surely Mexico and Central America have several more dozen species there, one that I will mention later in this story.

Fred A. Urquhart (Ph.D.) of Ontario also began studying the monarchs when a child, later joined the staff of the Royal Ontario Museum, and eventually wrote an excellent book, "The Monarch Butterfly" in 1960. His interest in the mystery of the migratory travels of the monarch butterflies began in 1937 and resulted in reams of notes, many of which were incorporated into his book. Dr. Urquhart was the person who started the important project of enlisting hundreds of people throughout southern Canada and the U.S. to tag monarchs in hopes of learning more about their migratory flights.

I came to know Bill Sieker, a lawyer of Madison, Wisconsin, because of his relationship with the incorporation of the Ridges Sanctuary at Baileys Harbor in 1937. Bill was an outstanding amateur lepidopterist specializing in the "under-wing" moths but also in butterflies. Bill and his family had a cottage near Baileys Harbor for many years. He was one of the early cooperators helping with Dr. Urquhart’s monarch-tagging project. In fact Bill had two exciting recoveries from the many monarchs he tagged. One that was tagged in Baileys Harbor on Aug. 17, 1956 was recovered four days later and 256 miles to the south in Chicago. Another that was tagged in Baileys Harbor on Sept. 3, 1955 was recovered three days later and 130 miles to the south in West Bend, Wisconsin.

It was during the mid-1960’s that I came to know Jim Gilbert, outstanding naturalist and writer from Chaska, Minnesota. He had come on some of my guided tours of the Ridges Sanctuary and shared his experiences of tagging monarchs for Dr. Urquhart. Urquhart, writing in his fascinating August 1976 National Geographic story, "Found at Last: the Monarch’s Winter Home," revealed his miraculous find, among millions of monarchs, of one that had been banded in Chaska, Minnesota by none other than Jim Gilbert!

Several of our friends, among them, ShirLee and Wes Wilson of Baileys Harbor, have visited the famous wintering sites of the monarchs in Mexico and described the adventure in wonderful detail. Here is a good example of ecotourism, which, if handled properly, will definitely benefit the future existence of the monarchs. Upwards of 200,000 visitors each year hire guides to take them to the monarch wintering sites.

More and more U.S. students, ranging in age from high school down into the middle grades, have become involved in some basic monarch research. A group of scientists and educators at the University of Minnesota, including Dr. Karen Oberhauser, Director, Monarchs in the Classroom Program, have developed exciting programs for and involving students. Contact: Monarchs in the Classroom, c/o Karen Oberhauser, 100 Ecology Building, 1987 Upper Buford Circle, St. Paul, MN 55104 if you are seriously interested in helping.

Earlier I mentioned the milkweed plants whose leaves are eaten by the caterpillars of the monarch butterflies. The common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca (as-KLEE-pe-us si-RYE-a-ca) is a very abundant wild perennial in this region. Even though it is readily eaten by the caterpillars, it is not one of their favorites if they have choices. Two that they prefer over the common milkweed are the red milkweed, A. rubra and the swamp milkweed, A. incarnata (in-car-NAY-ta). These three plants are all native perennials.

There is another milkweed that is an annual and is not native to this region, the Mexican milkweed, or "bloodflower," A. curassavica (cur-as-SAV-i-ca). These plants will either have to be purchased as small plants or as seeds which will then have to be started indoors this spring and moved outdoors when the weather warms. Given a choice of the different milkweed species, most monarch females will choose the Mexican milkweed for laying their eggs. The young caterpillars relish the leaves and, fortunately, the plant has a vigorous habit of re-growing eaten foliage. As far as obtaining plants or seeds, try The Milkweed Farm – – or possibly various plant and seed catalogs.

Next week I will give you some other ideas for helping the surviving monarch butterflies that hopefully will find their way to northeastern Wisconsin this early summer. By the time you read this story they will already have begun their miraculous journey northward. (Continued in Part Three)

This column appeared in the Door County Advocate on 03/29/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Roy Lukes. All rights reserved.