Beautiful Butterflies: Hatteras Local Discovers The Miracle of Monarchs

 In Animals - Wildlife, Coastal Life, Garden & Landscaping

It was late August of 2017, and I felt like I had more monarchs in my front yard on Hatteras Island than all of the Brits since George I in 1714. Let me explain…

As a lifetime gardener and birder, I had gotten fairly good at identifying both garden plants and birds, but an article about “butterfly watching” in one of my gardening magazines caught my attention. I had never thought about watching for them and trying to identify them like I did the birds. But the authors made sense. After all, I don’t just say, “There is a cardinal.” So why would I say only, “There is a butterfly.”

My first lesson began with studying the photos in that article. Next was watching outside for the “flutter-bys,” a term my wife, Linda, first introduced to me many years ago. Brilliant!

In the spring of 2016, I experimented with a commercial packet of seeds called “Butterfly Garden Mix.”  This contained some cultivars that were unfamiliar to me. As the mix germinated underground and grew into seedlings, it was hard to determine which were plants and which were weeds.

There was one particular plant that wasn’t very attractive, but nevertheless I reluctantly let it continue growing to see what might develop.

Summer came and went and by September, that bed had developed into so many wonderful flowers that I had forgotten about the mystery weed. One morning, Linda excitedly called to me from the butterfly garden, “We have an infestation!”

Immediately, from that foggy part of my brain, I recognized a dozen or so very large monarch butterfly caterpillars. They were very busy munching on my mystery plant. It was a weed after all – a milkweed!  The monarch’s favorite, I had learned from my new research. It is the only plant on which monarchs lay eggs, and the only one monarch caterpillars will eat. Their entire world revolves around the milkweed.

By the next day, only two or three were still in the same area. A day later, I saw NONE…but, after prolonged and somewhat agonizing scrutiny, I spotted a chrysalis. I had only seen them in photographs and my initial reaction was that the chrysalis was far too small to contain that big caterpillar. But I was still a novice. I was stunned by the jewel-like artesian quality of the cocoon.

I picked out one to monitor that was still on a small live milkweed. Its eating slowed down, and for a while seemed to do nothing, almost motionless. Then I saw it. As I approached, it had suspended itself from the twig, then formed a “J” and began spinning. The next time I saw it, it was another beautiful chrysalis.

Only days later it started to emerge, and within minutes “my” monarch joined the wild butterfly world.

The following spring, my milkweed plants had multiplied. This time I had some fore-knowledge, so I planted a “butterfly garden” adjacent to the milkweed. Unlike before, I purposefully chose the plants based on research: Rose of Sharon, butterfly bush, marigolds – and, most crucially, as it turned out, zinnias – lots and lots of zinnias, of many different heights, colors and shapes.

By early summer of 2017, I had more than a dozen caterpillars on the expanded milkweed patch. My wife and I were having the best time watching them develop every day. The butterflies themselves stuck around and were very active, fluttering by and visiting the zinnias for pollen and nectar while still laying eggs.

Then came the real mystery.

Most of the adult caterpillars were gone, but we did discover three chrysalises. What happened to all the rest? As we continued to look for them, now late summer, we discovered a huge number of new eggs and dozens of new juveniles at varying sizes, some full-grown and others were absolutely new-borns!  Now, there was a whole new group to watch develop. There should be chrysalises everywhere.

Indeed, the mystery was being divulged. While resting in my carport and under the deck, I was aimlessly looking around when to my utter amazement I saw one…another full monarch chrysalis! But it was suspended from the ceiling, which was actually the bottom of my deck. Then another full one. And another. It was fascinating to imagine how they got from the milkweed to here, not to mention how they would soon be flying thousands of miles to Mexico.

In one day, August 25, 2017, Linda and I saw four butterflies emerge from chrysalises and fly away. Then we saw mature caterpillars searching for their place to begin their metamorphic miracle. So, on that one day, in that one place, in only a matter of hours, we could see monarchs mating, egg cases, as well as several different growth stages of the caterpillars – some still in chrysalises, others hatching, flying and then feeding on the nearby flower nectar. We were witnessing an entire life cycle all at the same time.

Now I am thinking about planting a monarch farm next year! ♦

The Serious Side

This article has been the story of our surprise, delight and discovery of one of Nature’s miracles. However, in our brief research, we discovered the serious side. There is good news and bad news. The extremely serious bad news is that monarch butterflies are now an endangered species. The worldwide population of these butterflies has dropped 80 percent in the last 20 years.

Donna Haddon has been tagging monarch butterflies for more than a decade.

There are multiple reasons for this, but primarily it’s due to the loss of habitat trees in Mexico. We can’t do much about that from the Outer Banks, but here’s the good news:  Ordinary individuals like you and me can make a HUGE difference and it is extremely easy to do. Just plant some milkweed seeds in your yard or garden. That is it. Nature will do all the rest!

My original butterfly garden was five-by-six feet. This really takes so little that anyone can do it. And then all you have to do is wait, watch and be mesmerized. The rewards of participating in this amazing cycle are enormous. You will never look at butterflies in the same way.

Local Experts                                        

Mary Lillie, a volunteer from the Dare County Master Gardeners, flooded me with invaluable information. Her words of wisdom: “Gardening here on the Outer Banks is a challenge because of our harsh environment, but do not let that discourage you because native plants are well-suited for this purpose.”

The Master Gardeners have a butterfly garden at the Arboretum surrounding the Baum Center in Kill Devil Hills. Lillie adds, “We will have many pollinators for sale there at our Coastal Gardening Festival on May 19th.”

Some native butterfly favorites to add to your garden, according to Lillie, are butterfly weed, coreopsis, ironweed, joe pye weed, seashore mallow, seaside goldenrod, stokes aster, swamp sunflower, yarrow and purple coneflower.

Monarch Butterfly Tagger Donna Haddon of “Donna Designs” is also another wonderful resource. Her website includes a wonderful “Monarch Info 101” at www.donnadesignsobx.com/about-us/about-donna/monarch-butterfly-love/.

Starting with a talk at Jockey’s Ridge in 1976 that seemed interesting, Haddon’s initial fascination quickly morphed into a near addiction. “Until you see it happen,” she said, it is hard to understand. “I have driven long ways to re-supply my milkweed plants and seeds.” During our visit, she showed us potted milkweed plants she overwinters in her house.

“What I really like about you doing this article,” Haddon told me,  “is that you don’t see this as a science lesson, but as an enthusiastic novice who wants to spread the word about how anybody can do it.”

I hope I have done just that.

James D. Charlet has 24 years of experience as a classroom teacher of North Carolina history and 25 years permanent residency on Hatteras Island with expertise in its history, geography and culture. He is the author of two textbooks (NC Studies and Wright Brothers) and numerous magazine articles on Outer Banks subjects

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