August 14, 2013 - Monarch butterflies need people's help now more than ever. Debbie Jackson of Springfield Township and other conservationists can show you how.
Butterfly conservationist Debbie Jackson points to a caterpillar crawling next to a developing butterfly in chrysalis. (click for larger version)
"I'm doing this to raise public awareness of their population decline," said Jackson, Monarch Watch conservation specialist who is helping to plan the Monarch Festival, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 25, at the Shiawassee Basin Preserve, 12000 Davisburg Road.
The free event gives people the opportunity to tag a monarch and set it free to fly to Mexico for fall migration.
"We'll have a variety of activities for people to participate in, focused around the Monarch's life cycle and incredible journey to Mexico," Jackson said.
Butterfly populations are 5-10 percent of what they were 20 years ago and all indications point to further decline, she said.
"This has been a cool summer – it didn't allow them to develop normally," she said.
Delayed growth leaves them vulnerable to ants, spiders, and other predators, a problem for insects whose normal survival rate to adulthood is about five percent.
"This year, I think we've lost a whole generation," she said. "Other insects are lower this year as well, probably due to the cooler than average summer we're experiencing, but Monarch populations are down due to habitat loss, herbicide, and pesticide use, too."
Insects form the base of the food chain, so their loss will ripple up to affect humans as well, she said.
Conservation efforts include asking greenhouses to provide pesticide-free plants, discouraging eradication of weeds by individuals and governments, especially milkweed, which caterpillars eat, and planting native plants in individual yards, she said.
"If you plant them, they will come," she said.
Jackson, who moved to Davisburg with her family in 1992, grew up in Cedar Rapids. When she was 10 years old, she remembers trying to catch Monarch butterflies with a net but couldn't reach them – they fly too high.
"They are superb flyers," she said. "Mom gave me a book – I learned about milkweed and caterpillars."
She rode her bike to a field, found a caterpillar just where the book said they would be, took it home, fed it, and watched as it formed a chrysalis.
"After a while, a butterfly came out – it was just really neat," she said.
By seventh grade, she was raising dozens of butterflies. Now, with the help of friends, she takes care of about 200. They're aiming for 300-500 for the festival.
"I get to be 10 years old again every time I see a butterfly born," she said. "There's something wonderful about the innocence and freshness of new birth."
It requires an investment of time but not much money. She uses recycled lettuce and ice cream containers with holes in the lids.
"They don't need a lot of air," she said. "And it's a good way to get kids outside."
Jackson has been teaching classes about raising butterflies for about four years.
Workshops at the festival will include author Brenda Dziedzic, native plants with Trish Hennig, and a variety of butterflies in different stages of life, from eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises (pupae) and adult.
Participants will tag and release, and also record how many by sex – males have two scent glands on their wings and different markings. They request a $1 donation for the cost of tags.
"Hopefully some will come out of chrysalis during the festival," Jackson said.
They work with Monarch Watch of University of Kansas, and will set up in the pavilion at Springfield Farmers Market.
Butterflies, which live for 7-9 months, migrate to Mexico every year.
It takes them 6-9 weeks to make the 600 mile trip to Mexico, leaving Michigan about the middle of August. They grow fast, from an egg to 3,000 times their birth size in 14 days, and spend 10-12 days in chrysalis. If it's cooler, it takes longer.
For more information, check www.monarchwatch.org or Springfield Township Parks and Recreation, which is hosting the event, at www.springfield-twp.us.
Phil is editor for The Clarkston News. He is a veteran of the first Iraq war, having served in the U.S. Army.