They will be back with us soon, by late May or June, those monarch butterflies, a sight more beautiful and welcome this year than ever before.
“We need this!” exults Nancy DuBrule-Clemente at Natureworks, the Northford garden center and shop she has owned for nearly 40 years. She’s delighted because I’m there to get her talking about monarchs (easily done) and she’s laughing because our photographer, Peter Hvizdak, has pinned dozens of colorful metal monarchs on her and on Natureworks’ manager Diane St. John.
DuBrule-Clemente is also wearing green because it’s St. Patrick’s Day, but unlike one we have ever known. The coronavirus has wiped out parades and shut down bars and restaurants. And yet on this day the Natureworks staff is preparing for its usual opening on the first day of spring, two days away, and St. John is noting that, as we speak, the monarchs are leaving their sanctuary in Mexico, starting to fly north on their annual 3,000-mile journey to Connecticut.
“First they’ll go to Texas,” St. John says. “The milkweed is already coming out there. They’ll stop and lay eggs; those butterflies will die but their babies will be born and fly farther north. The great-great-grandchildren, the fourth generation, will come to Connecticut.”
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Milkweed is the key to all this because milkweed leaves are the only food monarch caterpillars will eat. And that’s why DuBrule-Clemente and St. John work so hard encouraging property owners to plant milkweed. Flowering plants provide nectar for adult butterflies, so gardens should offer those as well. (For details, go to naturework.com.)
If you wish, you can get your garden certified by Monarch Watch as a monarch waystation, which Natureworks has done. (See monarchwatch.org.) You will be provided with a checklist and then be certified — as long as you never, ever use pesticides.
As an organic gardener, DuBrule-Clemente has been a fierce opponent of pesticides for decades. The danger they pose to monarchs is a prime example of why these chemicals should not be used on our properties. “If any pesticide gets on your milkweed, the eggs won’t hatch or the caterpillars will go into convulsions,” she says. And so when Natureworks does programs training people to attract, raise and ultimately release monarchs, DuBrule-Clemente notes, “You have to pledge to be organic. If you’re going to use poisons, forget it.”
April and May is the time to plant milkweed and lots of flowers. “People should have gardens instead of lawns,” St. John says. Usually by June, when you see monarchs flying around, eggs will appear on the milkweed leaves. If you want to raise monarchs, you would cut off those leaves and bring them inside. The Natureworks website has more about this.
But St. John says just planting the milkweed and flowers is fine. “You can let it happen naturally. You don’t need to look for eggs.”
When DuBrule-Clemente isn’t at Natureworks, she’s often out doing workshops on monarchs. Last August she and St. John did a hands-on presentation at the Pardee-Morris House for the New Haven Museum. It’s clear that people love these butterflies; at least 75 people crowded onto the lawn. Occasionally the audience stirred when a monarch flew past us; the event ended with our butterfly duo releasing monarchs, sometimes with excited kids chosen to do so.
On that summer’s day, DuBrule-Clemente introduced St. John as “the crazy butterfly lady.” Recently, I ask St. John how she got that name. “About 10 years ago, when I had three little kids, we raised a handful of Eastern black swallowtail [butterflies]. I took a photo and brought it into Natureworks. We had so many customers who came in and asked, ‘What is that!?’ ” that DuBrule-Clemente started telling them it originated from “the crazy butterfly lady.”
The Natureworks staff raises monarchs by bringing in their eggs off the leaves and placing them in little cages as they transform from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Last year they raised 784 of them.
The staffers also tag some of the monarchs for Monarch Watch. The goal is to know whether they make it all the way to Mexico. St. John says, “We’ve had four that started here who we know made it to the Mexico sanctuary because they were found there. That’s exciting, like winning the lottery. It’s a needle in a haystack.”
How is climate change affecting the monarchs? DuBrule-Clemente says severe storms, especially those in Mexico, can wipe out large migrating groups or impact their triggers as to when it’s time to fly north. But she adds: “The biggest negative effect on monarchs is man. It’s the poisoning of crops.”
According to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, since 1996 the Eastern population of the migratory monarch butterfly, which was then around 700 million, has plunged by more than 80 percent. In addition to Americans’ use of herbicides, the monarchs are being killed off by deforestation of their Mexican winter habitat. Loggers are ruining that land.
But over the past several years, DuBrule-Clemente says, “Monarchs are definitely making a comeback. That’s because lots of milkweed has been planted. Five years ago there were just no monarchs around here. Milkweed planting is really helping. This is a symbol of something you can do to make a difference.”
And this is reassuring news in a time when we are all so worried about the coronavirus and climate change. “I think monarchs bring people hope,” St. John says. “They’re like gardens, which are very healing. Monarchs are comforting. I think their being here will help.”