Monarchs flit through Berks on way to Mexico

With their vibrant orange color and striking black accents, Monarchs are one of the most recognizable of butterflies. In Berks County, reports of the familiar insect begin in August and continue through September as the Monarchs begin their annual pilgrimage to Mexico.

“The generation of eggs laid here in Berks County and elsewhere in the mid-atlantics make their way back to Mexico,” explained Lenhartsville resident and avid Monarch enthusiast Jon Kuhns.

He and his wife, Karen, traveled 2,000 miles to the mountains of central Mexico to see the brightly colored insects converge in February of 2011. Kuhns’ interest in Monarchs began much earlier, when he was a boy exploring the fields of his grandfather’s Lehigh Valley farm.

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“As I was walking through a field, I saw this beautiful caterpillar on a milkweed plant and wonder what it would turn into as a butterfly,” he recalled. “I was hooked once I saw the chrysalis and the monarch through the clear chrysalis. Once it hatched it was the most beautiful butterfly I had ever seen.”

The butterfly’s bright colors and graceful flight are among the many reasons he remains captivated by the Monarch. ”The chrysalis is also so beautiful and you can see the monarch folded up inside just before it emerges,” Kuhns said.

Monarchs are not just beautiful. They are part of the population of pollinators, like honey bees, and provide a crucial step in plant growth. By tracking the insects, Monarch lovers provide crucial clues to the factors affecting all pollinators. Extreme weather is one factor; a larger issue is shrinking natural habitat in both our northern area (milkweed plants) as well as in Mexico (fir trees). The use of pesticides adds another wrinkle.

Kuhns currently tags butterflies as a volunteer for Monarch Watch, a University of Kansas program. In 2013, studies were discouraging as reported numbers were down, reaching an all-time low in the Mexican population. This year, however, numbers are up and Kuhns is encouraged.

“There is a significant increase,” he said. “They seem to be making a comeback so far this year per early reporting by volunteers.”

Kuhns hopes Berks County residents will do their part to continue this upward trend. Individuals who plant and maintain appropriate plants can be designated Monarch Way Stations. Several varieties of milkweed are available, with many suitable for planned flower beds. Nectar plants, such as zinnias, provide important migratory nutrients for the adults.

“The monarchs only lay eggs on milkweed, [which is] the only food source for the caterpillar,” Kuhns explained, adding. “I cry when farmers cut down fields of milkweed in August and September. Without a source of milkweed, there will be no more Monarch butterfly!”

Jay and Martha Ressler, of Hamburg, have worked to provide a nurturing habitat for Monarchs. The couple, both artists in Pittsburgh, retired to Tilden Township. Their home rests on the farm Jay’s parents bought in 1946.

“We didn’t want the traditional yard, all grass with a few bushes here and there,” Jay explained. “We wanted something more colorful with a lot of different [plant] species in it.”

Martha added, “I think our interest in butterflies and insects intensified as we began to learn about the importance of native plants and maintaining a garden that would support the web of life.”

To that end, they attended classes on native plants and invited a naturalist to tour their property and identify good plants versus invasive ones. One of the “good ones” was milkweed, which they have since learned has over 40 species.

“The first milkweed we planted out front,” Jay noted. “I had a vague notion that they attracted monarchs, but I was more interested in just having something different than most people have. I liked the look of the milkweed.”

Today, the Resslers have proudly attained a Penn State Extension Master Gardener Certified Pollinator Friendly Garden. Their property has three kinds of milkweed (swamp, common and red) scattered in different native beds. They also have plants like ironweed and coneflowers, good attractors for adult butterflies of all varieties. “The adults are not so picky,” Martha confirmed. “They can get nectar from other plants.”

As they pointed out the different plants, the couple kept a sharp eye out for monarchs. Over the course of an hour they spotted an adult flitting in meadow mint. A large caterpillar was discovered in a neighboring property and a few tiny (first instar) specimens were also down the road in common milkweed plants.

“We haven’t been able to identify an egg yet,” Martha said, “although we know what to look for.” Her husband noted that a possible explanation is that most of the adult Monarchs he has seen have been males, not females.

Signs of monarchs, to the Resslers and other naturalists, are signs of a healthy environment. And the lack of the bright butterflies is a sign of trouble. “Their habitat is more threatened than [other pollinators], because of the pesticides being used to stop the milkweed and farmers mowing it down,” Jay said.

For more information about Monarch butterflies and the efforts to boost their population, visit Monarch Watch online (monarchwatch.org). The site also has links to find free Milkweed plugs locally. Another good website is the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (mlmp.org.)

Interested in maintaining native plant gardens? The Resslers recommend “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants” by local author Douglas W. Tallamy.