Monarch butterflies can be saved by everyone

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Photo Gallery | Saving the Monarch butterfly

Video | Monarch caterpillar chrysalis

VERNON — Vernon is an entry point for monarch butterflies migrating north from their wintering grounds in Mexico.

In June, a group of nature lovers got together on the back deck of Vermont Woods Studios and shared milkweed seeds and plants — milkweed is the monarch's only food source and the over-use of pesticides has nearly eliminated it from today's landscape. We are planting milkweed in our gardens and backyards with the goal of providing habitat that will bring monarchs back to Vermont.

Many local people will remember Carol Richardson who introduced Vernon's kindergartners to monarch rearing every fall for many years. What a wonderful teacher she was. In those days monarchs were abundant and Carol would bring several caterpillars into the classroom in late August or early September. The kids would watch them transform from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly over the span of a couple weeks.

That was only 15 years ago but now there are no caterpillars to be found. What nature invested 50 million years of evolution into, humans have nearly wiped out in less than two decades. Did you know monarch butterflies travel up to 3,000 miles each fall to their wintering site in central Mexico? In 2004, 550 million monarchs completed the winter migration, while in 2013 only 33 million arrived. Much of this can be attributed to illegal forestry practices, but an even worse culprit is the large-scale use of herbicides that destroy milkweed. But monarchs cannot survive without milkweed, as they eat only milkweed, and it is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs. Shifting priorities in land management has resulted in the loss of much milkweed from the landscape.

After researching the Monarch's plight, I couldn't live with myself if I didn't at least try to do something to help. So recently, I spent much of my time wandering through an empty lot on Route 142 in Vernon, collecting milkweed seeds. I recruited Dennis Shanoff, Kelsey Eaton and Nina Makiw to help me. David Berrie, of Berrie Real Estate in Newfane, owns the lot and he was kind enough to allow us to "take all the milkweed you want!" I think that ended up being about 1,000 seedpods. Annette Roydon volunteered to sow milkweed seeds in a couple of her pastures at Malhana farm and I did the same in the meadows at Stonehurst.

The Nature Institute estimates there are an average of 226 seeds in each milkweed pod so we probably harvested around a quarter of a million seeds. We'll keep them on hand for awhile in case anyone in the area would like to plant some. Otherwise we'll donate the seeds to Monarch Watch, an organization that maintains a free milkweed seed bank.

The monarch's decline is being driven by the widespread use of genetically engineered crops that are made to be resistant to herbicides, which has virtually wiped out milkweed plants in corn and soybean fields. Those of us who eat corn or soy, or any of the foods that contain them, can't very well blame the farmers for milkweed's eradication, so scientists, conservationists, and butterfly enthusiasts are encouraging road crews and property owners to grow the plant in their own yards, gardens and along roadsides.

It's hard to believe that milkweed has nearly disappeared from Vermont's landscape in just a few short years. In the Green Mountain State, corn crops are everywhere and along the edges of those fields we used to find lots of Monarch caterpillars feeding on milkweed. Not anymore. The Midwest has lost much of its milkweed too, as more land is being planted with GMO corn and soy to meet the world's increasing demands for biofuels.

At Vermont Woods Studios, we connected with Chip Taylor, a professor at the University of Kansas and founder of MonarchWatch.org, an organization that's dedicated to bringing the beautiful orange and black butterfly back from the brink of extinction. Taylor sent us a couple of dozen tiny caterpillars to raise in our community.

You, too, can help save the monarchs by getting active and sharing your work on social media. Picking milkweed and planting the seeds or sending them to organizations like Monarch Watch is a great first step. Contacting your local legislators, getting involved with local environmental groups that work to save monarchs, and writing to your local papers is even better.

If you need seeds, visit us at Stonehurst at 538 Huckle Hill Rd. in Vernon or call 888-390-5571, and we'll give you as many as you'd like. You can also contact the Monarch Watch Seed Bank where you can donate or request seeds. Directions for planting milkweed seed can be found at LiveMonarch.com.

Vermonters can support Elizabeth Howard and her Journey North organization by reporting their sightings online. Whenever we post about our work with Monarchs, we'll be using the hashtag #MonarchsVT. Please post your photos, stories, and butterfly inspiration using the same hashtag to raise awareness for this cause. If you need help finding milkweed or seeds, send an email to kelsey.eaton@vermontwoodsstudios.com.

Peggy Farabaugh lives in Vernon. She can be contacted at Peggy@VermontWoodsStudios.com.


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