Monarchs are the ambassadors of the butterfly world.
“In our region, Canada, the United States and Mexico use the monarch butterfly as a symbol of cooperation. It is a tri-nation effort to conserve the monarch,” says Gail Manning, Fort Worth Botanic Garden entomologist.
The monarch, Texas’ state butterfly, is “one of the most beautiful and recognizable insects on Earth,” adds Ben Hutchins, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department invertebrate biologist.
According to Hutchins, the monarch population has dwindled dramatically over the past 20 years due to the loss of overwintering habitat, loss of nectar plants and the disappearance of milkweed on which the monarch caterpillars feed.
The fall migration of monarch butterflies from Canada to Mexico began in Canada in late August, arriving in Texas on their way to Mexico in late September. The 3,000-mile migration is truly a test of the monarch’s endurance.
The monarch making the fall migration southward lives eight times longer and will fly 10 times farther than those in the spring migration, which is actually made up of three generations. Females begin to lay eggs in the spring when only a few days old. Each generation completes its life cycle in about a month and the latest generation migrates farther north until the third generation lands in Canada.
When it is time for the fourth generation to head south, the females are not biologically programmed to lay eggs. All of the monarch’s energy is directed to the 80 or more days of travel, thus the emphasis on planting nectar plants for food. But equally important is planting milkweed for monarch caterpillars in the spring.
“Many times gardeners will think of spring and summer blooming plants, but neglect the fall perennial plants such as aster, goldenrod and blue mist, which bloom until frost and provide nectar for the monarchs,” says Manning.
The students at Willis Lane Elementary School in Keller have created a habitat for monarch butterfly conservation. First created in 2003 as Willis Outdoor Learning Facility (WOLF), it was the brainchild of Emilee Crow, kindergarten teacher, and Morris Whitener, fourth-grade teacher. The garden is designed in the shape of Texas to show the diversity of the Texas habitat. Drought-tolerant perennial plants are planted in the appropriate region. The selected plants must also be able to grow in Keller.
“It was built to provide a place for students to have hands-on learning about Texas and the regions. Over the years, students have helped with the gardening and weeding as well as parents and staff,” says Cheryl Hudson, Willis Lane principal. “The district has been supportive in helping with problem areas and maintenance of the grass areas. It has truly taken a community to keep it going.”
Jenny McLane began volunteering when her son entered kindergarten at Willis Lane six years ago. And although he is now in middle school, she is still a WOLF volunteer. She credits Evanne Price, Melissa Malone and Salena Morphew as instrumental in creating the Monarch Waystation at WOLF. The garden is also an Audubon-designated bird-friendly habitat.
“I’d love to work with more property owners who have large lots with native milkweed. Over the past four years, we have relocated many ‘at risk’ milkweed plants that would have otherwise been mowed in the playing fields at Willis Lane. The students were proud to help transplant the milkweed to the WOLF where they can thrive and sustain hungry monarch caterpillars.
“We encourage the students to preserve the environment. Last year the students sent a letter to the mayor asking him to sign a pledge to save the monarchs,” says McLane. He did.
“Over the years, we have tried different ways to make it user friendly for students and staff,” adds Principal Hudson. “Questions and information were created and posted in different spots of the garden that students could scan a QR code and learn information about it. At one point we had a binder with different lessons that could be used in the WOLF. The students have always enjoyed being able to go in there and read or help weed or just walk around in it during recess. With the addition of the outdoor learning area last spring — a pavilion built by parent volunteers with a Lowe’s grant and table and benches built by Eagle Scouts — teachers are able to take a class out there and have them all in one area and teach lessons.”
The students are encouraged to promote monarch conservation by reporting monarch sightings on the Journey North website, https://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/monarch/FallWatch.html. Students are also learning monarch tagging which has provided a lot of information on monarch migration habits.
“Students have helped me tag monarchs in the WOLF in the last few years and will during this year’s migration. Their fingers are perfect for handling the tiny vinyl stickers that are used to track monarchs,” says McLane. The Monarch Watch web site is http://monarchwatch.org/tagmig/tag.htm.
Want to help hungry butterflies?
A partial list of perennial nectar plants/vines that attract monarchs.
• Blackfoot Daisy
• Blue Mistflower
• Butterfly Weed
• Mealy Blue Sage
• Texas Lantana
• Turk’s Cap
• Carolina Jessamine
• Coral Honeysuckle
• Passion Flower
• Virginia Creeper