A Great Year for Monarchs

The orange and black make a comeback!

Each year since 2007 we have watched patiently for the return of the monarch butterfly to our little half acre. That was the year Nan was walking along the fence on the south side of our yard and spotted a monarch caterpillar acting strangely. As she stopped to observe this behavior the caterpillar became a chrysalis right before her eyes. This set off a chain reaction of excited study and observation that led to the planting of various species of milkweed in our garden and the yearly collecting of monarch caterpillars to protect them from their predators and ultimately release them back into our garden. It's our own little effort to counter some of the impact of the eradication of milkweed from midwest agricultural land through the use of Roundup and the drive for efficiency that virtually eliminates fencerows and other 'non-productive' land where milkweed used to grow.

The monarch migration from Mexico that begins each spring and leap-frogs north by generation doesn't generally bring many monarchs to our garden early in the season. Though we have seen our first monarch the past two years around Father's Day, they don't stay long as they move on across Lake Erie and up into Canada. In fact, we generally don't see more than a few monarchs until August when they come, lay their eggs on our milkweed, and prepare to begin the great migration south. So, along with the milkweed, we plant asters and goldenrod that will be in bloom late in the summer and on into the early autumn to provide a nectar source for our little friends. And we wait for them to come.

Sometimes we will have quite a few, as in 2011 when we released almost 140 butterflies. Sometimes, as in 2013, we will see only a handful. But 2015 was the best so far.

We took our first monarch caterpillar inside on August 1. Through the month of August as I looked out the window beyond my computer I watched female monarchs drifting from plant to plant all day long laying eggs. It has been a magnificent summer. (Though a bit difficult to focus on my work!)

During the first three weeks of August we had to work hard to keep up with the feeding as they threatened to eat us out of house and home. By (August 21) we had brought in 225 caterpillars and quite a few eggs that had not yet hatched. (We generally try not to bring in leaves with eggs on them as we haven't had a good track record nursing them to become caterpillars, but last year they were so prevalent that it was hard to pick a leaf and not get an egg!)

By the time they started south, we had released 350 into our garden and had stopped bringing them inside feeling that we had done our part sending them off to the great migration.

Now, after enough time has passed for reports to come back from the over-wintering grounds in the mountains of central Mexico, it appears that 2015 was a bouce-back year for the monarchs. These beautiful butterflies covered more than 4 hectares, the most since the winter of 2010-2011.

Now Spring is coming to our area, our gardens are slowly beginning to turn green with new growth, and we are looking forward to the return of the monarchs hoping for another banner year.