Saving the monarch

Saving the monarch

Story by Laurie Pressel

Photos courtesy of Kylee Baumle

 

Most people would have paid it no mind or flicked it away with a finger. Kylee Baumle was fascinated by the tattered dead butterfly with a tiny white sticker on its wing.

Kylee and her mom had come across the monarch butterfly in a chapel garden in Pennsylvania in September 2006 on their way home from a trip. They had stopped to say a prayer for the victims of the Flight 93 crash that had happened in a nearby field just five years earlier during the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Peering closer at the once beautiful butterfly, Kylee noticed the sticker on the wing listed a website—www.monarchwatch.com.

A curious person by nature, Kylee became determined to find out the story behind the butterfly and its tag. What she discovered changed her outlook on nature and life.

Life of the monarch

The monarch — large in size with distinctive orange and black markings — is the most iconic butterfly in North America. Like all butterflies, monarchs have an amazing life cycle, transitioning from egg to caterpillar, then caterpillar to butterfly through a process called metamorphosis. The migration of the monarch, however, is what sets it apart from other butterflies.

“To think that a butterfly in my garden travels more than 1,700 miles to Mexico — a place it’s never been before — overcoming perils and threats along the way, is absolutely incredible,” says Kylee, a Haviland resident. “I think that’s what got me hooked.”

A dental hygienist, avid gardener and garden writer, Kylee spent countless hours devouring information about monarchs. She learned that while several generations of monarchs are born in a season, the last generation is special. Although genetically no different than previous generations, the last generation of monarch lives significantly longer. Spurred by environmental cues like shorter days and cooler nights, these monarchs make a long and treacherous journey to the Transvolcanic Mountains in Mexico. They overwinter there and fly back North in the spring before reproducing and creating the next generation.

In her research, Kylee eventually learned that the tagged monarch she found in Pennsylvania had been released by family members of the victims of the United Airlines Flight 93 crash during a five-year memorial ceremony in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The butterfly was part of a massive effort to track the monarch migration journey and bring the monarch back from the brink of extinction.

Plight of the monarch

The more Kylee learned about monarchs, the more heartsick she felt about their plight. It’s a sobering statistic: the monarch population has declined by 80-90 percent in the last 20 years.

Scientists have pinpointed several reasons for the decline. The widespread use of pesticides is one factor. In particular, the use of chemicals to eradicate milkweed in farm fields and fence rows. Monarchs rely on milkweed for their survival, it’s the only plant that the monarch will lay eggs on and that monarch caterpillars will eat. The milkweed contains toxins that won’t harm monarchs but deters predators like birds.

Climate change has also caused widespread drought and more severe storms that disrupt the monarch’s food sources and migration patterns. Also, climate change and illegal logging in Mexico have threatened the oyamel firs where the monarchs roost in the winter.

Yet there’s cause for hope, says Kylee. In cities and in backyard gardens, at universities and at environmental organizations like Monarch Watch, concerned citizens are banding together to raise awareness and to bolster the monarch population.

“Because (the monarch decline) is a multi-faceted issue, there’s a lot more opportunity to reverse it,” says Kylee. “Everyone can get involved. Every single person can do something to help the monarch.”

Taking action

When Kylee examined the dead monarch on that sunny September afternoon in 2006, she wasn’t a “call-to-action” type person. Over the past 12 years, that’s changed.

“I’ve become more aware of how connected everything is in nature and why it matters,” she said. “I’ve come to understand that what we do today will impact our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Kylee quotes from Yan Arthus-Bertrand, a photographer, journalist and environmentalist, to explain her transformation: “He said it best: ‘No one is an environmentalist by birth. It is only your path, your life, your travels that awaken you.’”

Spurred to action by the monarchs, Kylee changed the way she gardened. In her one-acre plot in rural Paulding County, she planted milkweed and nectar plants that bloom in the late summer to provide food for migrating monarchs and other important pollinators. She also became a citizen scientist, tracking and tagging monarchs in her backyard for research groups. She even started raising monarchs in her home.

Further inspired, she decided to write a book on monarchs to bridge the gap between children’s books and scientific books. “The Monarch: Saving our Most-Loved Butterfly,” published in 2017 by St. Lynn’s Press, provides straightforward and comprehensive information on the monarch for the general public. In the past year, Kylee has traveled across the country for book signings and to give talks about the monarch.

Kylee also spearheaded an effort in the state of Ohio for a monarch butterfly license plate produced by the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles. The plates cost a bit more than regular plates, but $10 from each sale is donated to the non-profit Monarch Wings Across Ohio.

Then, in spring 2017 and 2018, Kylee embarked on dream journeys. She traveled to Mexico to visit the monarchs in their overwintering grounds. Standing in the midst of hundreds of thousands of monarchs in the Transvolcanic Mountains rendered Kylee speechless. “I was struck by awe and wonder,” she said. “My only thought was ‘surely God is in this place.’”

Kylee believes that despite the odds stacked against them, monarchs will persist for future generations. Everywhere she goes, she encounters people who are eager to learn about the monarchs and do their part to save them. “It’s a ripple effect,” she says. “The more you know, the more you care.”

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What can you do?

Plant milkweed in your garden. Kylee suggests planting several different types of milkweed in different parts of your garden.

Reduce your use of pesticides. If you live in the country, don’t mow or spray fence rows or other areas where stands of milkweed grow naturally.

Plant a pollinator garden in your yard. If you don’t have the space, lead an effort in your community to establish a public pollinator garden.

Plant flowers that bloom in the late summer to provide food for monarchs as they migrate. Flowers suggestions: asters, goldenrod (this is not the plant that causes hay fever), Joe Pye weed, zinnias, cosmos, marigolds, verbena.

Donate money to a monarch organization or become a volunteer.

Become a citizen scientist and track and tag monarchs. Visit www.monarchwatch.com for more information.

Salt Magazine