Education on monarch butterflies takes flight

By on May 2, 2018

Monarchs may be the best known of all butterflies, with their distinctive orange coloring laced with black and white. You might have noticed that you don’t see as many of these as you used to see. There is a good reason for that.

“Monarch butterfly populations are steadily declining,” reports Kim Barabas of the Lititz Garden Club. “That’s why we want to educate people on these beautiful butterflies.”

The Lititz Historical Foundation in conjunction with the Lititz Garden Club will be holding their annual Plant Exchange on Sunday, May 6, at 1:30 p.m. at the foundation’s Mary Oehme Gardens, with the exchange of perennial plants in categories that include sun, shade, exotic, bulbs, herbs and ground cover. One plant that will be taking center stage is the bright orange or yellow butterfly weed, which as its name implies, is a favorite among butterflies.. it’s especially important in efforts to save the monarch butterfly.

On May 6, efforts on how to save the monarch butterfly will be presented at the annual plant exchange, hosted in conjuction with the Lititz Historical Foundation and the Lititz Garden Club.

“We will be providing butterfly weed plants and education on the monarch butterfly,” says Barabas, who is working with Sallie Rihn and Charlene Van Brookhoven in educating the public about this cause. Barabas is involved with the Penn State Southeast Agricultural Research Farm near Manheim, where butterflies and plants are studied in order to help keep butterfly populations thriving. She reports that part of the reason monarchs are dwindling is that their habitats are being over developed. Herbicides are killing the monarch’s favorite food, the common milkweed, which many people think of as a weed. Pesticides are killing the caterpillars and butterflies.

“The Lititz Garden Club wanted to make it our mission to let people know about the monarch. We will have a table set up at the plant exchange to share information on this topic,” says Barabas. Many people don’t realize how crucial milkweed is to saving this insect. It’s the only food that monarch caterpillars eat. Destroy the milkweed and the caterpillars have nothing to eat. They also don’t realize what this caterpillar looks like before it is transformed into a butterfly. It is thick with yellow, black and white stripes.

The tiny caterpillars gobble up milkweed and grow about an inch to an inch and a half long. While its looks are striking, some people might not recognize what kind of caterpillar it is and may destroy it, thus destroying its potential to become a glorious monarch.

The same can happen with its chrysalis or cocoon. The dark hued chrysalis is most often seen hanging from a branch underneath a leaf. It’s important that the chrysalis is not touched or damaged in any way. In a little more than a week to two weeks, the caterpillar will complete its spectacular metamorphosis, emerging as the brilliant orange and black monarch butterfly.

“When it first emerges, its wings are wet and it must dry off in the sun so that it can fly,” says Barabas. As amazing as its metamorphosis is, the migration of the monarch in North America is quite fascinating. There are two migrating populations that are separated by the Rocky Mountains.

The area east of the Rockies supports the larger population, with these butterflies overwintering in the coniferous forests in the mountains of the Mexican states of Michoacán and Mexico. The monarchs that reach the northeast United States and the southeast provinces of Canada migrate several thousand miles to and from this very specific site in Mexico.

Milkweed is the only food that monarch caterpillars eat. Destroy this, the caterpillars have nothing to eat.

“That is incredible to me,” says Barabas. “It’s a mystery as to how they know to go to the same place in Mexico.” In contrast, monarchs west of the Rockies overwinter in coastal areas of California taking a migratory route of only a few hundred miles. No one knows how these butterflies know where they are supposed to go for the winter.
While monarchs are summering in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other east coast regions, it’s critical to make their stay conducive to living to their full potential and being able to make that trip to Mexico.

“From egg to caterpillar to butterfly, the monarch lives six to eight weeks,” says Barabas. Sharing information on this butterfly will be one highlight of the annual Plant Exchange. The Mary Oehme Gardens are located behind the historical foundation’s buildings at 137-145 East Main Street in Lititz. The event is rain or shine.

The plants to exchange must be perennials and must have identification tags for each plant. Upon arrival, a ticket will be handed out for each plant, which is placed in its category. Tickets can be redeemed for another plant after all plants are placed in the categories and the attendees have some time to explore the categories. Members of the Lititz Garden Club will also be on hand for assistance and to help answer gardening questions. The event is open to the public and there is no charge for this event, but a donation can be made to help maintain the gardens.

“We also encourage people to find out more about joining the Lititz Garden Club,” says Barabas, noting that the club meets at the Lititz Public Library and has about 50 members, from beginners to master gardeners. “We are a growing organization.”

Laura Knowles is a freelance feature writer and regular contributor to the pages of the Record Express. She welcomes feedback and story tips at lknowles21@gmail.com. 

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