Royalty at risk

ave you seen them? The fluttering wings of the monarch, have they been spotted yet?

Most of those who spend time outdoors – gardening, mowing grass, bird watching or spending time with the kids – have yet to see these bright orange beauties.

“I normally collect up to as many as 100 monarch caterpillars each year and then release them when they hatch out … most years I find far more than I can hatch out … this year I’ve seen one butterfly and have found zero caterpillars,” said Dave Ferry, a member of the Lycoming chapter of the Audubon Society.

That is a tremendous decrease, he said.

Ferry said his first sighting wasn’t until Aug. 2 and was among his acres of milkweed.

R.B. Winter State Park’s naturalist MaryAnn Bierly held a program on Aug. 23 called “On the Wings of a Monarch,” where she had planned on tagging monarchs. That wasn’t happening this year.

“Usually in the spring I start to see them around the park,” she said.

She has seen none at R.B. Winter and wasn’t even able to collect caterpillars to rear for tagging later.

In the area to and from her office, she has seen five all together. Her fellow state park naturalists also are coming up with low numbers.

Bierly participates in Monarch Watch and tags the butterflies as part of the program. She usually involves park visitors in the program to help her.

Stacie Lakatos, a teacher at West Branch School, has been participating with Monarch Watch for 12 years with her students at the school.

She said the website gives info about monarch population status for the current season, as well as predictions for the migration and predicted overwintering numbers.

The website states that Monarch Watch is an educational outreach program based at the University of Kansas that engages citizen scientists in large-scale research projects. The program produces real data that relate to a serious conservation issue.

“Personally, I have not seen one monarch yet this year. I live in the city, but I am often out on bike rides and hikes. I definitely notice a difference this year,” Lakatos said.

She said that by the end of May last year, she saw them on the Susquehanna River Walk. As of Aug. 8 this year, she still hadn’t seen one.

Lakatos isn’t an expert on butterflies, just a very interested, interactive teacher with a background in biology who takes the time to learn about the insects and uses the Monarch Watch project.

“I value nature and believe in conservation. I like the notion of citizen scientists, especially including children, which allows people to participate in science and understand the importance of science in our lives,” she said.

She started learning and gaining interest in the mid 1990s when her father Jerry Zeidler was tagging monarchs and told her about the program.

“When I began teaching at West Branch School in 2002, I decided it was a program that would fit perfectly at the school, as we approach science and learning in a real-world, hands-on way,” she said.

Students at the school have been raising monarch caterpillars since 2002. They tag and release them under the Monarch Watch program.

“I estimate that we have raised and tagged over 600 monarchs in that time,” she said.

Last winter was the lowest overwintering population of the monarch to date in Mexico.

There may be a number of reasons why they are decreasing in population.

“Chief among them are the loss of habitat (milkweed) and weather conditions in the southern United States in the spring as the migrant monarchs are returning from Mexico,” Lakatos said.

The low overwintering population affects the number of subsequent generations that arrive in Pennsylvania in the summer, she added.

“I saw my first monarch (Aug. 13) in Newberry when I was at school, working. The other teacher I was meeting with told me that was the first he has seen as well. Last year I saw monarchs in late May,” she said.

She believes there should be concern for the lack of the monarchs. The loss of habitat of any species should be of concern at all times.

“While you may see milkweed around here, that doesn’t mean all areas of the country have the same abundance of it. Because monarchs migrate and make their way north over five generations over the course of a season, if the food supply is insufficient in other areas, they may never make it this far north to reproduce here,” she said.

One single female monarch can lay hundreds of eggs, but only one per leaf, so she needs many leaves to accomplish egg laying, Lakatos said.

In a discussion at Bierly’s program, the subject of habitat loss was brought up as a possible reason for the low number of monarchs. She believes that to help the butterflies, humans may need to step in and stop habitat loss.

Many ways to help were discussed and one recurring idea would be to make sure there is enough milkweed for the monarchs to use. Less spraying of herbicides in fields and along roadsides could be a start.

“Butterflies are showing extinction and whether monarchs are part of that that is the debate,” Bierly said.