Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Miralce of the Monarchs

   A few weeks ago I wrote about the ending of summer and the antics, activities and troubles of two of our major pollinators, bees and butterflies. I got several replies to that newsletter, and I appreciate folks taking the time to write and reply. Often these recipes bring out something I had not known before or remind me of something I forgot. One of those replies to that pollinator newsletter referenced a piece I had written back in 2016 about the migration patterns and behaviors of the monarch butterfly. I had forgotten about that piece, so I went back and found it.  And I was once again amazed at the surprises that nature often holds when we look closely at it. The monarch is a beautiful butterfly, but what is even more amazing about it is its toughness. I was totally unaware of that until a summer in 2000 when we accidentally stumbled onto something that led me to find out more about this miraculous creature:

    In late August of 2000 my wife and I were on our third trip to Kingston, Ontario.   We were there for the annual Limestone City Blues Festival, started by Kingston native Dan Aykroyd and which just celebrated its 23rd year in 2019. We had discovered the festival a few years before, and we quickly made it a ritual to spend the last full week of August in Kingston before returning to our teaching jobs. The festival was the main attraction at first, but we had also enjoyed seeing and learning the area. We had been up and down Princess Street, the main drag in Kingston, and discovered about a dozen independently owned and operated bookstores. We had been to wonderful Thai, Indian, Greek and Vietnamese restaurants. We had also visited art museums on the campuses of colleges in the area and visited the wonderful Maritime Museum of the Great Lakes. We had seen gardens, farm and school museums, and historic houses. Now we were getting off a ferry boat that had taken us across the St Lawrence River to visit Amherst Island, a cute farming community that from what we read had llamas (?) sunflower farms, and a migratory bird stopover/ grassland bordering Lake Ontario. That was our intended destination- as birders we wanted to see the various hawks, owls and other birds the frequented the reserve. But we were in for a marvelous surprise.
    We drove to the northwestern end of the island, past the llama farm, a number of small crop farms, some wonderful old wooden barns, and an amazing sunflower farm all on our way to the Edwards refuge. We got out of the car, turned into the wind, and carefully walked through the large field, dodging prodigious amounts of dung from the free roaming cows on the property. We quickly spotted Cooper’s hawks, marsh hawks, kingbirds, wrens, red tail hawks, ospreys and more. But then we noticed there were all these stalks of something sticking up across the field that seemed to have some small things clinging to them. Curious, we walked a little closer, and we couldn’t believe what we saw.  There were hundreds, literally hundreds, of monarch butterflies clinging to the grass stalks and trying to hold on in face of the wind. Unbeknownst to us, we had stumbled onto part of the northern range of the monarch butterfly. It was migration time, and they were there all over the refuge. This migratory stopover was not just for birds; the monarchs used it also.
    As we went from section to section of the field monarchs would arise, float around for a bit, and then land on another stalk. At times the air would be filled with dozens of  beautiful monarchs just flitting from stalk to stalk, hovering and then landing. Looking south across Lake Ontario, I realized I could not see the shoreline of New York State; it was there but it was beyond my eyesight. Then it hit me what was going on: these fragile looking little butterflies were feeding and waiting there on Amherst for the wind to change so they could make the long trip all the way across that huge lake to continue their migration southward. No; it did not seem possible.; how could these fragile looking gentle creatures do that?? How? We were on the island for some three or four more hours, and we saw the monarchs constantly and persistently traveling from stalk to stalk, feeding, resting and preparing for the next stage in their trip. They were going to do it. We were amazed and delighted.
      As I learned later, the migration of the monarch is a very strange trip indeed. Out of the hundreds of species of butterflies, monarchs are the only ones that make a true two-way migration of hundreds of miles the way birds do. Their range is astonishing-they may cover a distance of some 2,500-3,000 miles north from Mexico to Canada.  But that is not the only astounding thing about this migration; the monarch who overwinters in Mexico and starts the migration north out of Mexico is not the same individual monarch who finishes it in Canada. Each generation of monarchs, traveling some 50-100 miles a day, makes it only so far north. They give birth to another generation along the way, and it is that next generation that travels until it is time for it to give birth to yet another generation. In all, it is the third or fourth generation of northward flying monarchs that finally reach the northeastern United States and Canada. There they find enough milkweed to spend the summer and early fall. Coming southward, though, that third or fourth generation monarch makes the trip all the way to Mexico-across Lake Ontario and onwards for over 2,000 miles. And all along the way it stops at the same trees and islands and follows the same routes that the previous years’ monarchs did on their way to a winter home they never seen before.
    Once in Mexico they cluster in large communities, shut down their natural reproductive development, and wait until next February and March. Then they seemingly come back to life and travel north in those 3-5 week spurts as their reproductive ability returns and they lay the eggs for the next generation going north. This cycle will repeat come the fall, and on and on it will go. It is an amazing saga of instinct, renewal, generational knowledge and perseverance. 
       As I re-read this I am fascinated and amazed yet again. There before us and around us, and seemingly beneath our notice, is this constant, quiet miracle of birth, re-birth, inter-generational continuity, travel, and triumph that has been going on for centuries and centuries. Miracles truly come in all sizes and in all shapes. And the seemingly gentle little monarch has a lot to teach us about miracles, perseverance and commitment.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Bees and the Butterflies and Us

  The last two weeks or so here in the Delaware Valley have let us know that there is change going on-subtle, regular, change that is quietly making itself known to us. It is a predictable change that heralds the next step in the cycle that keeps us abreast of our world. The temperatures most days have been cooler-starting in the 60’s in the morning and mostly having highs in the mid-80’s or so. There are also changes going on in the immediate world around us-colors of plants and flowers are a little duller and some of them are starting to bend over a bit in their window boxes, pots, and planters. The birds, particularly the bright yellow and black goldfinches that have been dashing about the neighborhood, are losing their brightness. Soon they will be dull colored, they will move on, and other winged friends will be moving in.  Bees and butterflies seem to be in hyper-drive, appearing more numerous and dashing determinedly from flower to flower, seemingly working overtime. Fall is in the air, and we are at another one of those wonderful spots in the year where we have the simultaneous ending of one part of the cycle and the beginning of another. And it is quietly glorious.

 I enjoy being out at times like this, noticing the skies, looking at the sun and the, moon and enjoying the whole world being in transition again. This year I have been especially focusing on the bees and butterflies in my regular walks and trips around Northwest Philly. This section of the city has always had a huge number of great gardens, window boxes, planters and flowerpots. The plantings in this area make the streets and alleys gorgeous, lively and colorful-it can feel positively joyous to be out in the morning and taking in the quiet spectacle. And the flowers and plants draw a lot of butterflies and bees that make walking the area fun and exciting. At any moment bees and butterflies can zip past or be seen hovering over and on flowers, plants, and stalks, adding color and movement to the area.  They are truly a gift to the neighborhood, and I think I have noticed a great deal more of both of these insects in the neighborhood this year. That is both good and important.

   These two creatures have been in the news a lot recently as environmentalists, entomologists, gardeners, beekeepers and more have been sounding warnings about the drastic declines in their numbers over the last few decades. There are some 4,000 species of bees native to the United States, and according to some estimates, some 700 of those species are near extinction. Butterfly numbers have also been dropping dramatically, with the United Nations estimating that 9% of butterfly species worldwide are at risk of extinction.  We are losing many of these wonderful creatures, and this would is not only an esthetic loss.Not only are they fascinating to watch and beautiful to see: they are also a vital part of our economic structure.
   Bees and butterflies are pollinators, and as such they contribute mightily to the diversity and amount of our food supply. Honeybee pollination, for example, is said to add some 15 billion dollars annually to our agriculture production. That is an important part of our economy. Clearly, they play a big role in our lives. If they are at serious risk, then so are we. (US Pollinator Information | United States Department of Agriculture

The most severe threats to these species are believed to be loss of habitat due to development and the use of herbicides, particularly chemicals found in common weed killers such as Roundup. For years there have been court cases, lawsuits, attempts at legislation, and more to address these fears, and that is happening now in the political arena. But fear of losing pollinators is also being met on a more personal and local level. It is one of the reasons for the upsurge in organic gardening. Citizens seem to be planting not only for beauty now. I have noticed that a lot more gardeners in Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill have been planting more milkweed, sunflowers, bee balm, monarda, hyacinths, and other pollinator-attracting flowers and plants in recent years. This section of Philadelphia has a number of bee keepers and honey makers living and working in it. It also features a large number of organic community and personal gardens. Planting native species is also a big ethic among a lot of the gardeners here, and that is also a part of the Fairmount Park plan for caring for the Wissahickon Creek. 
    Intentional or not, there is a clear movement to make the Northwest a pollinator friendly part of the city. I believe people acting on these concerns is behind the growth in the number of pollinators I saw this year in the Northwest section of the city. Hopefully this can continue to move and grow and spread  throughout the city, the state and the nation. I still want to see those butterflies and bees in my garden and in gardens around the world.
 (If you are interested in learning more about pollinators, their status and things being done to help them)