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Amazing Migration

Imagine setting out for Mexico on foot, traveling more than 2,000 miles without a map, using only some unseen force to guide you, a trek your great-great-grandfather made but one you’ve never before attempted. Imagine that, along the way, you can’t find a place to eat. Not a single fast food joint, convenience store or five star restaurant along your route. Imagine that the only food that can sustain your children cannot be found, and everywhere you look, there are empty spaces where grocery stores used to be. If you can imagine this, then you can imagine the plight of the most recognized butterfly in North America, the tawny-orange, yellow and black monarch.

Right now, Ohio is on the peak migration route for these royal fluttering beauties as they make their way from all points in the U.S. and Canada to the warmth of Mexico, and many of them are struggling to find sustenance along the way.

Every year, the 12 major monarch sanctuaries in Mexico take a butterfly count. In 1997, there were about 50 acres of butterflies. Last year, that number was the lowest ever, falling to less than five acres.

One major reason for the dramatic drop is that monarchs are rapidly losing their host plant, the milkweed, the only plant monarchs lay their eggs on, the only plant their young can eat. Milkweed is losing ground, literally, to widespread use of Round-Up ready crops, roadside management practices and suburban development. What many humans see as an ugly weed that clutters ditches, banks and fencerows, monarchs see as their only source of survival.

To put it simply, without milkweed, there are no monarchs.

Lynda Price, a naturalist at The Wilderness Center in Wilmot, says monarchs are one of the most amazing migrators in existence.

“The adult monarchs we see now are traveling to Mexico to spend the winter,” says Price. “That’s a 2,000 mile journey taken by a very small butterfly.”

That, says Price, is just one of the amazing things about the monarch’s migration. Adults migrating south now will live eight to nine months, while spring monarchs, who will never migrate, have a lifespan of two to five weeks. Their job is to populate the United States and Canada, preparing the way for the last generation of the year to fly to Mexico, a place they’ve never before been. These are the great-great-grandchildren of monarchs who made the 2,000 mile one-way trek in years past. How do they know where they’re going? Scientists can only speculate; they could be following wind currents, magnetic fields or their own instincts. While it’s unknown exactly what draws them, one thing is sure; the overwintering populations in Mexico are shrinking along with their host sources.

“It’s very important that the monarchs returning from Mexico have milkweed to lay their eggs on,” says Price. “It’s important to keep the population big, and they need to have host plants all along the route.”

Holmes Countians can make a difference, Price says. Those fencerows, ditches and roadsides are currently loaded with monarch eggs and caterpillars which will be changing into adults within the next couple of weeks. If this and future generations hope to continue enjoying the miracle that is the monarch, they need to put away the weed-eaters and let the milkweed multiply.

“They are on the plants now,” says Price. “We found caterpillars just this week.”

Price says those who wish to help increase the monarch population have a lot of options. Farms can let fencerows and roadsides grow up until monarch season is over in late October. Most regular milkweed is found in ditches, and each plant can host several eggs and caterpillars. People with limited space can plant one of several varieties of milkweed thanks to free seeds from organizations like The Live Monarch Foundation. Obtain free milkweed seeds by sending a self addressed, stamped envelope to: Live Monarch Foundation – Seeds 3003-C8 Yamato Road #1015 Boca Raton, FL 33434 or visit http://www.livemonarch.com/free-milkweed-seeds.htm.

Price teaches monarch preservation at The Wilderness Center through a tagging program in cooperation with Monarch Watch, an educational outreach that helps track monarch migration on a large scale.

“We put a numbered sticker on each butterfly’s wing, and Monarch Watch can see where the butterflies in Mexico are coming from based on their tags.”

Those interested in tagging can participate in the no-cost program at The Wilderness Center, 9877 Alabama Avenue SW, where they can learn more about monarch preservation. Tagging will take place on the following dates: Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 1 p.m., Friday, Sept. 16, at 10 a.m., Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 10 a.m. For more information and details about the program, visit the website athttp://www.wildernesscenter.org or call 330-359-5235.

In the meantime, Holmes Countians can forgo the weed-eaters and rest well knowing that they’re preserving the marvelous monarch for future generations. A few weeks of enduring weeds is definitely worth saving such a treasure.

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