A Final Glimpse of This Year’s Monarch Butterfly Migration
Cycle one of our monarch butterfly restoration project is coming to a close here at Vermont Woods Studios. Over the past week and a half, our monarchs have been hatching one by one. The first, taking us by surprise with its ability to speedily release itself from its chrysalis. In just a short moment, the monarch broke through the chrysalis and pulled its damp body from the small structure. The Stonehurst staff monitored the fledgling butterfly excitedly as it clung to the shell of the chrysalis, drying slowly.
Eventually the butterfly dried itself and went off in search of food to prepare itself for its migration journey. One by one, our other chrysalises turned shiny and black and we knew it would only be a matter of days before all of our monarchs would be beautiful, bouncing, baby butterflies ready to fly off into the world.
We are proud and happy to see the caterpillars we raised turn into the delicate winged creatures they are today. In this first cycle of the project, we have seen the release of twenty monarch butterflies. Being the business people we are, we appreciate this achievement that we have reached but we also strive to do better in the future.
The end of the first cycle of this project gives way to the second cycle that will start almost immediately. Our CEO Peggy has been watching the milkweed pods carefully for a week now and has determined that the time has come for us to once again harvest the seeds. As we head quickly into the second cycle of monarch restoration, we hold in our minds ways to maximize the habitat restoration and amount of monarchs we will be able to foster and release in the spring.
We hope to harvest and distribute more seeds than last year. We plan to raise seedlings ourselves to give out in the spring time to those dedicated people who promise to plant them on their land. We are already percolating new ideas for monarch caterpillar rearing environments with hopes of a terrarium in the near future.
This year we took on 50 monarch caterpillars but we know we can handle more than that. The success of cycle one has given us fuel and ambition to make cycle two of this very important restoration project bigger and better.
(This is part four of a four part blog series on our Monarch Butterfly Restoration Project)
When we first started this monarch conservancy project, we knew a key pillar to success would be to spread the word. In order for a change to happen, people need to know that a change is necessary; intervention is necessary and knowledge is power.
You would think that raising awareness would be simple in our social media flooded climate. A post to Facebook would reach the eyes of hundreds and if they deemed it worthy of sharing, thousands. A quick and to-the-point blast to twitter would reach another thousand. Our website and blog would reach yet another; so, prospects were looking good.
Announcements were made, posts posted and blogs painstakingly pulled from the most creative corners of our minds until one day, Jeff was discovered. For those of you who somehow don’t know, Jeff is our monarch champion mascot and he’s pretty famous as of Wednesday when his picture first appeared in the Brattleboro Reformer.
A day later , an article appeared highlighting the need for monarch restoration and upping the ante on spreading awareness.
We at Vermont Woods Studio are extremely grateful to the local people, media and Jeff for getting the word out. We are very excited to continue reporting on our cohort of monarchs until they take flight and go off on their own in the world.
Don’t Panic! That’s not the end. Once our little Jeff and his cronies fly the coop, we will shed an honorary tear and then get back to work hatching plans to harvest more milkweed seeds to plant this fall. There is no time to waste people, we have monarchs to rehabilitate!
(This is part three of a four part blog series on our Monarch Butterfly Restoration Project)
Vermont Woods Studios Prepares Monarchs for Take-off
On a beautiful day straddling the line between August and September, we huddled on the deck of Vermont Woods Studios at our Stonehurst property. Five adults and two children all gazing in mirrored excitement at the progress of our monarch caterpillars as they forge their ways into butterfly-hood.
“I’m going to name him Jeff!” One of the young boys informed the group as Peggy Farabaugh, the CEO of Vermont Woods Studios and head caterpillar-rearer, gently scooped up two prized caterpillars and secured them safely in a jar for the boys to bring to their grandmother’s.
It has been two weeks since the arrival of the caterpillar babies (or larva) and already they are well on their way to adulthood. However, their transformation is far more magical than that of any other aging process. They came to us as tiny creatures no bigger than a grain of rice and have rapidly transformed into vibrant, two inched beauties that scuttle about their mesh hamper confinement eating milkweed and maturing with natural grace.
It is marvelous to watch the caterpillars inch their way to the top of the hamper and methodically suspend themselves upside down in a J shape. This is a signal to the world that the caterpillars are ready to enter the pupa or chrysalis stage of life. The caterpillars work tirelessly in this J-shape to molt their skin and transform their outer appearance into the grass green, gold speckled chrysalis.
“I wonder what they’re doing in there all the time.” Peggy mused, affectionately grooming the caterpillar habitat. The allure of mystery gripped us all as we watched the beautiful chrysalises hang, cautiously enveloping the transforming caterpillar.
In about two weeks the chrysalises will have turned black and the monarch butterfly will be ready to emerge with damp, fledgling wings. In the short span of two hours, the monarch’s wings will dry and it will be lusting for flight. Thus our babies will leave us and safety of the Stonehurst deck.
However, it won’t be a sad day, for on this day we will have reached our goal. With the help of Orley R. “Chip” Taylor, founder of the Monarch Watch program at the University of Kansas, we will have completed cycle one of the Monarch Restoration project. The Vermont Woods Studios company developed an objective: to help restore the monarch population. Success is heavily contingent on three pillars: milkweed restoration, healthy, migration-ready monarchs and continued research.
Last October and November, Peggy and the Vermont Woods Studios staff went out in search of milkweed. Pods gathered along route 142 were brought back to the studio where seeds were harvested and packaged for distribution.
Seeds were distributed to local gardeners and nature enthusiasts, clients and planted on the Stonehurst property. 1 in 100 milkweed seeds strewn across the earth will produce a plant. Because of these small odds, we chose to carefully plant 80 seeds on the Stonehurst property yielding 80 viable milkweed plants.
Along with learning the importance of carefully planting the milkweed seeds, the Vermont Woods Studios staff have also developed important information for rearing monarch caterpillars:
Whenever it is possible, raise the caterpillars in a terrarium
Do not allow direct sunlight to hit the terrarium
Monarch caterpillars grow quickly and this process can be messy, so cleaning the terrarium frequently is a must
Once our monarchs are ready for flight, we have one last piece of the puzzle to put in place before we can call the project a success. Chip founded Monarch Watch in 1992 and has been studying monarch migration since 2005. The eastern monarchs born at the end of the summer months have the innate task of migrating to Mexico. This migration will take four generations of monarchs.
Our Stonehurst monarchs will fly just a portion of the way and then stop to lay eggs and die as the new babies begin the growing process and mature to fly their portion of the trip. This process will repeat until the final generation sails over sunny Mexico and makes themselves comfortable for eight to nine months when the United States is again habitable for the return of the monarchs.
How did people come to have such intimate detail about the migration pattern of these tireless creatures? The answer to this is evolving through research, which brings us to the final stage of the project: tagging the monarchs.
Before our monarchs take flight, we will place a small, adhesive tag, provided by Chip and his team on the wings of our monarchs. These tags will signal researchers to know where the monarchs came from and provide other valuable research that will continue to help rehabilitate the monarch population.
As we stand on the deck, without a chill in the air and watch the chrysalises form, we know the journey our caterpillars have before them. We discuss tagging the butterflies with nervous laughter, none of us having ever done it before; but were willing to try because we know that it is one key step in encouraging the comeback of these magical creatures.
(This is part two of a four part blog series on our Monarch Butterfly Restoration Project)
The little village of Vernon, Vermont that houses Vermont Woods Studios is in the very southeastern corner of our state. It’s an entry point for monarch butterflies migrating North from their wintering grounds in Mexico. We’ve written earlier about the plight of the monarch and the fact that it’s on the brink of extinction due to the pervasive use of the herbicide RoundUp. But residents of Vernon are not inclined to sit idly by and watch this iconic butterfly disappear.
In June, a group of nature lovers got together on the back deck of Vermont Woods Studios and shared milkweed seeds and plants (milkweed is the monarch’s only food source and the use of RoundUp has nearly eliminated it from today’s landscape). We are planting milkweed in our gardens and backyards with the goal of providing habitat that will bring monarchs back to Vermont. If you’d like to join us please let me know. I have plenty of milkweed seeds and plants for anyone who would like to plant them.
Foster A Monarch Caterpillar
I also have 20 tiny little monarch caterpillars who are looking for foster parents willing to rear them. Would you like to be a foster parent for a monarch? Many of you will remember Carol Richardson who introduced Vernon’s kindergarteners to monarch rearing every Fall for many years. What a wonderful teacher she was! In those days Monarchs were abundant and Carol would bring several caterpillars into the classroom in late August/early September. The kids would watch them transform from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly over the span of a couple weeks.
That was only 15 years ago but now there are no caterpillars to be found. What nature invested 50 million years of evolution into, man has nearly wiped out in less than 2 decades. But there’s still hope! At Vermont Woods Studios we connected with Dr. Chip Taylor at the University of Kansas. Dr. Taylor has created MonarchWatch, an organization that’s dedicated to bringing the beautiful orange and black butterfly back from the brink of extinction.
We’re sending thanks out to everyone who gathered with us at Stonehurst this week to begin making Vernon, Vermont a Monarch Butterfly Way Station. If you’re interested in the environment and nature, please consider joining us in this fun project! You can learn more about our efforts to save the endangered monarch butterfly here.
Vernon has many master gardeners and butterfly enthusiasts! We shared some milkweed seedlings (the Monarch caterpillar’s only food source) and will begin planting them in our gardens and back yards. We’re also reaching out to the Vernon Elementary School VES, the recreation department and the roads commissioner, asking them to support the project by planting milkweed where appropriate on public land.
In August and September we will meet again when the Monarchs are laying their eggs and beginning their metamorphoses. Please contact us through our Facebook if you’re interested in joining our butterfly rescue project or starting one in your own town. It’s fun, and there’s wine. What more could you ask for?