Outside tag and release sessions, educational exhibitors, craft tables, hands-on vendor demonstrations, milkweed relay races and butterfly games were some of the family-friendly activities offered Saturday at the Cobb Island Volunteer Fire Department as visitors of all ages migrated to the 9th annual Monarch Mania to learn about the importance of monarch butterflies and how they can be better stewards of its habitat and conservation.
“It helps people understand the importance of conserving our monarch butterflies that are disappearing,” said Mike Callahan, a naturalist and educator from the Nanjemoy Creek Environmental Education Center who helped facilitate the event. “Tagging and releasing the butterflies is part of the Monarch Watch citizens science project [based out of the University of Kansas]. Each butterfly has its own unique tag number [with a website and phone number] and we put the sticker on the wing.”
Several years ago, Callahan began catching and tagging monarch butterflies through Monarch Watch, a nonprofit that uses volunteer citizen scientists to track monarchs as they make the nearly 3,000-mile migration to Mexico for the winter. Spotters report the identification number on the butterfly tag to Monarch Watch, Callahan said, giving an idea of how many have completed the journey.
“If anybody finds it between here and the mountains of Mexico, and they report it, then we know where it got tagged and how far it made it,” Callahan said. “It’s a nice project that anybody can be a part of.”
The Maryland Independent previously reported in 2015 that a study released by the World Wildlife Fund found monarch populations at their lowest point since scientists began monitoring the butterflies in 1993. WWF attributed the decline to the U.S. loss of milkweed plants — which is the monarch’s primary food source — hot, arid summers and the destruction of overwintering habitat due to illegal logging in Mexico.
Callahan said the migration of monarchs is a multigenerational affair. Butterflies returning to Mexico for the winter are the great-great-grandchildren of those who left last spring and always follow the same route — it’s all about instinct and following the light, according to Callahan.
“The fourth generation females are bigger than the males,” he said. “Both males and females in the fourth generation are bigger than the other two generations.”
Saturday’s event, sponsored by the Cobb Island Citizens Association, was part of an annual festival celebrating the fall migration of monarchs from the United States to the Sierra Madre mountain region of Mexico. This year’s keynote speaker was 24-year-old environmental educator Casey Tinius of Sterling, Va., who addressed major threats to monarchs and the role of humans in preserving a population that is at jeopardy of disappearing all together.
“Monarchs bring the community with them so they’re important in that sense,” Tinius said. “They’re so beautiful and so iconic. When you think of a butterfly, you think of a monarch.”
A fact sheet from the Monarch Joint Venture organization noted that increasing use of herbicides, habitat loss due to real estate and agricultural development as well as climate change are all factors in a declining monarch population.
In addition to the overwintering site being in jeopardy, Tinius said avocado farming has become the new threat as the demand for this superfood has increased by 440% in the last 20 years, and 83% to 93% of avocados that the U.S. imports are from Mexico.
The primary concern for the Oyamel forests in the past, according to Tinius, had to do with illegal logging but that has been decreasing since 2005. Because the pressure from demand has resulted in 14,800 to 19,800 acres of deforestation by orchard planting, Tinius said the rainforest alliance is working to create sustainability initiatives regarding avocados. But progress is slow.
Fortunately, Tinius said conservation efforts can start in one’s backyard by dedicating a portion of it as a healthy pollinator habitat, specifically with planting milkweed and native nectar plants. She also suggests limiting the use of herbicides or pesticides and getting involved in the community such as joining a local group that monitors monarch conservation progress.
“They’re kind of like the gateway butterfly to the natural world,” she said. “I love kids and watching them get excited about learning something because that’s where it all starts. The youth and those generations who develop an interest in the natural world at such an early age. They’re the ones who will grow up and fight to repress climate change and a bunch of different issues. I think that’s important.”
One type of flower species valued for its nectar and pollen is a Mexican sunflower called the Tithonia rotundifolia, which grows well in summer heat with regular watering or rain. University of Maryland Extension master gardener Jan Lakey-Waters, a Waldorf resident, gave out Tithonia seed samples to visitors on Saturday and also offered hands-on lessons for creating and maintaining a good butterfly habitat.
Some features of a good butterfly habitat include keeping dead trees and wood piles to serve as winter shelters; considering other wildlife friendly practices like bird feeders, heated birth baths, bee nesting boxes or having bare ground to help ground nesting pollinators find a spot for the winter; and registering monarch habitats online with the Monarch Joint Venture as a success story to share with others.
“It’s been fun and we’ve been trying to teach people more about butterflies and pollinators. … I had a hummingbird that used to come on the Tithonia in my yard, all summer long, in the morning and then she’d come in the afternoon,” said Waters. “When you talk to people, you educate them about other things; not just butterflies. That’s what I like about it.”
Individuals interested in supporting monarch conservation efforts can check out the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, Monarch Highway Habitat Project — an initiative launched in 2015 to promote and improve pollinator habitats along the I-35 corridor and its neighboring communities across six states — and the Maryland Department of Transportation Highway Safety Administration’s Pollinator Habitat Plan, which requires designating certain sites as pollinator habitats that must be managed without neonicotinoids or other pesticides that are toxic to pollinators.
For more information about gardening for monarchs and the importance of its conservation, go to www.monarchjointventure.org.