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Monarch Migration — Fall 2010 | Out Here Magazine

Milkweed-rich way station is a haven for journeying butterflies

By Hannah Wolfson

Photography by Brenda Embry
Illustration by Tom Milner

Brenda Embry's garden in northwest Arkansas isn't just a beautiful spot for people to visit — it's an oasis for migrating butterflies.

Embry has filled her yard with native plants that butterflies love, including the milkweed that monarch butterflies depend on as they travel back and forth across North America. Not only does she get to watch the stunning orange and black butterflies as they stop on their way between Canada and Mexico, she tags them so university researchers can help keep track of them and ensure their future.

Embry's yard is monarch way station No. 301 in the University of Kansas' Monarch Watch program.

Started five years ago, the program now has more than 3,600 way stations registered, and director Chip Taylor figures many more people are helping to build butterfly habitat without formally signing up.

"It gives people a lot of gratification because if they build these habitats, they will be rewarded — the butterflies will come," Taylor says.

There are two components of the monarch project. First, the goal is to get more people around the country to plant native milkweed, which is crucial for the monarchs' survival because it's the only place they'll lay their eggs and the only thing the caterpillars will eat.

Second, a small number of participants have also signed up to tag butterflies as Embry does. Each season, she collects the brightly-striped caterpillars on her milkweed by hand — there can be more than 100 some seasons — and raises them in protective aquariums until they turn into butterflies. Before she releases them, she affixes a tiny tag to their wings that lets scientists spot the butterflies in Mexico, where they hibernate for up to eight months in groups of thousands.

"It's pretty amazing," says Embry, who would love someday to journey to the Mexican mountains where the butterflies cover the trees. "I just can't even imagine (seeing) all of those monarchs."

Endangered Habitat

Why so much attention to the monarchs? First of all, Taylor says, they're threatened because their milkweed and nectar sources are disappearing. When development eats up prairies and pastures, milkweed is mowed down. When roadsides are sprayed for weeds, more disappears. And when farmers use heavy doses of weed killers, milkweed can't survive — and croplands represent 30 percent of the monarchs' summer breeding area, according to Monarch Watch.

Then there's the fact that monarchs share their plight with other pollinators such as bees and different butterflies, which are crucial to our food crops and natural ecosystems, Taylor says.

"The pollinators are key," Taylor says. "You save monarchs, you save pollinators, you save wildlife. It's all connected."

For him, that's the real thrill behind the monarch way stations — teaching people about the links between their actions and nature.

And Embry is a perfect example. She first learned about building a butterfly habitat about five years ago after hearing a presentation at her local botanical garden. She has stopped using pesticides and is growing more low-maintenance native plants. She has even started collecting milkweed from seed as well as planting cosmos, butterfly bush, and other flowers and shrubs that draw not just monarchs but also swallowtails, frittilaries, and others.

In summer, Embry can't wait to come home from her job as a dental hygienist and spend evenings watching the wildlife that visits.

"Usually in August it looks like a butterfly mecca around here," Embry says. "It's so pretty. I can just sit and watch. It's very relaxing to me."

Hannah Wolfson grows native plants at her Birmingham, AL, home, but is still waiting for the first monarch to visit.