Joyce Baker has a hobby you may not have ever considered. Every fall, she raises, tags and releases a few dozen monarch butterflies at her Charleston home. It is a fascinating, not to mention exciting, idea.
She talked about her hobby with my Master Gardeners this past week at our annual picnic. I thought that the talk was serendipitous as this coming week is National Pollinator Week.
National Pollinator Week is an initiative of the Pollinator Partnership, a working group of organizations dedicated to increasing the awareness of the importance of pollinators and educating the public on how they can support pollinators. Eight years ago, the U.S. Senate declared that a week in June be designated National Pollinator Week. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also declared this week as National Pollinator Week.
Pollinators of all species are extremely important for many reasons, with the pollination of numerous food crops an important service they provide to humans. Pollinators also play the important environmental role of maintaining and increasing the genetic diversity in the many plants they pollinate. Without them, Earth would be a very different place, and our diets would be much blander. We wouldn’t have chocolate, and coffee and wine would be much rarer (and probably not available worldwide). Existence would be bleak indeed.
Thanks to the interest of many in promoting pollinators, there are many tools available online and even on your phone to help you be more pollinator-friendly. I would suggest that you check out the Pollinator Partnership. Their website is easy to find — it’s pollinator.org. There you can find many resources to educate yourself about pollinators.
My favorite part are their planting guides. Enter your ZIP code and you are presented with a 24-page guide on what to plant that will provide food for pollinators in all life stages and all throughout the growing season.
I also really enjoy their phone app, BeeSmart, which you can use as a handy guide when you are out shopping at the garden center. It allows you to look up plants before you buy them to see if they feed pollinators, will let you choose your favorite pollinators so that you can purchase plants that they like, and will let you record your favorite plants. You can even find plants for your specific soil type and sun level. The app is available in both Google Play and the Apple AppStore.
When working with her monarchs, Baker uses monarchwatch.org. Monarch Watch is a nonprofit education, conservation and research program housed at the University of Kansas. The website is full of information about monarchs. The program is also the one responsible for the tagging and tracking of monarchs as they migrate.
The monarch migration is truly an interesting story — multiple generations of butterflies are born in different parts of the Americas as their parents migrate.
The first generation begins life in central Mexico. The monarchs that reach us here in West Virginia are the third generation (they hatch out around Texas). This generation lays eggs on milkweeds here and then dies shortly afterward. The eggs hatch out as caterpillars in late August and get their fill of milkweed before they go through the rest of the stages of metamorphosis.
After they emerge from their pupae as butterflies, they fuel up on nectar from a variety of flowers and begin the trek southward back to their wintering grounds in Mexico.
While the first three generations live only about six weeks or so, the fourth generation that hatches lives eight or nine months. They are the ones that lay the eggs in Mexico. These eggs will be next year’s first generation. In areas west of the Rocky Mountains, the third generation goes to southern California to overwinter.
Baker finds caterpillars that are munching on the various milkweeds she plants (they eat many different types, including what we call butterfly weeds — Asclepias tuberosum — and a tropical species, A. curassavica). She puts them in a cage and feeds them fresh milkweed. After a few weeks of growth, they enter their pupa stage and then emerge as butterflies.
She tags them with ID tags specific to her (available from Monarch Watch) before she releases them. When found by others, these tagged butterflies will be recorded so that their migration patterns can be better studied.
I have to admit that raising monarchs is an interesting hobby. If you don’t want to go that far, consider incorporating milkweeds into your garden to serve as food for the caterpillars.
Other fall-blooming flowers are also important to serve as a nectar source for the adult butterflies. They are especially attracted to flowers that contain red pigments — red, pink, purple and orange flowers are great nectar sources.
Of course, we can’t talk about pollinators and not talk about bees. Bees, including natives like bumble, carpenter and mason bees and the imported European honeybee serve as important pollinators. They are especially attracted to blue, white and yellow flowers. They also need flowers that they can land on and access, so they don’t really feed on long, tubular flowers like butterflies and hummingbirds do.