W ith its
brilliant orange wings marked by a black tracery of veins, the monarch butterfly may be
the most recognizable butterfly in America. Each year, several generations of monarchs
undergo the amazing metamorphosis from egg to adult, reproduce and die. By September, the
summers final generation begins to feel the call of migration. With the shortening
days and falling temperatures, this generation is unable to mature sexually and must
migrate south to warmer climates. Monarchs inhabiting the western United States have long
been known to overwinter in California, but for many years the winter home of monarchs
from the eastern U.S. remained a mystery.
The answer to the migration mystery came in 1976 when a Canadian entomologist
pinpointed the long-sought butterfly sanctuaries in El Rosario and Cerro Pelon in the
Mexican state of Michoacan. Year after year, the migrating monarchs follow the path
of their ancestors 2,000 miles to the same Mexican mountain ranges, flying as many as 80
miles a day. There, at an elevation of 10,000 feet, they attach themselves to trees and
sleep through the winter.
with the coming of spring, 300 million butterflies leave their mountain refuges in Mexico
and fly to milkweed meadows in Texas where they mate, lay eggs and die. Over the following
three weeks, their caterpillar progeny feed on the milkweed, form chrysalises and emerge
as the next generation of butterflies. With the growing warmth of spring and summer, these
descendants advance north in waves and spread out over the eastern U. S. and southern
provinces of Canada to repeat the cycle.
Several threats to the monarchs habitat have thinned their numbers across the
U.S. and Mexico, and continue to mount pressure against the very existence of this
species. The milkweed plants the monarchs depend on for food in the larval stage, along
with the flowering plants that provide nectar for adults, are considered weeds. Across the
country, prairie, pasture and meadow habitats are being lost to development,
"cleaner" agricultural practices, mowing of roadsides and expanding use of
herbicides. Uncontrolled logging in Mexico is destroying overwintering sites, as well. In
recent years, adverse weather conditions both in Mexico and the U.S. have reduced monarch
populations even further.
The Monarch Butterfly Research Project at Maumee Bay State Park Nature Center has been
instituted to improve the monarchs prospects. Fortunately for the butterflies, Doris
Stifle, a local researcher and world-renowned monarch butterfly expert, volunteers her
time and knowledge. With Doris help over the past four years, park staff and
volunteers have collected monarch eggs and caterpillars and brought them into the nature
center to boost their chances of survival. In the wild, only about one in one hundred eggs
completes the cycle of metamorphosis and becomes a butterfly. The efforts of the research
project have been rewarded with nearly 100% survival.
Due to the
mounting threats to monarch survival in recent times, the project was expanded last spring
to include a captive breeding program. Newly emerged adults are placed in an outdoor
screen tent where they can breed safely before being released, and entire generations of
eggs are protected immediately.
By summers end, more than 600 monarchs had been born and raised. In early fall,
to the delight of many park guests, Doris Stifle tagged and released the final generation,
sending them off on their migratory journey on a wing and a prayer.
Plans for the future include expanding the scope of the research and breeding project
for the upcoming season and continuing educational programming so that visitors to Maumee
Bay State Park may continue to be enlightened by the mystery and beauty of the monarch of
Dana Fall, Naturalist, Maumee Bay State Park