Volunteers appear, help plant milkweed for bees, Monarchs
SKULL VALLEY - Fiona Reid didn't have any trouble getting local volunteers to help her plant milkweed plants for struggling Arizona pollinators at her Skull Valley farm.
Reid, recently retired from her job as education director at the Highlands Center for Natural History in the Prescott area, contacted her former colleagues and students for help as well as the Yavapai County Extension Office's master gardeners.
"Fiona told us about the project, and we want to be part of the solution to problems humans cause," said Claire Oberst, whose husband Dave Irvine is the Highlands Center executive director.
"We want to save the bees and butterflies," said Rob Vannett, another Highlands Center supporter. "We're losing them at a rapid rate. This for me is so important for the long-term sustainability for Earth."
His children Adam and Hannah also came to help plant the
milkweeds in the hot, dry month of June. They have participated in Reid's Highlands Center camps, some of which took place on her Skull Valley farm.
"I've seen some butterflies here," 10-year-old Adam Vannett said as he helped plant the milkweeds. "They're big and pretty."
Volunteer Bob Gessner and his wife used to grow milkweed on their Illinois property, then take monarch chrysalis (pupae) to his wife's high school students.
"I think it's a great contribution to the environment," Gessner said of the milkweed farm.
While it's a local project, it's part of a larger effort to produce and gather native milkweed seeds in the South and Southwest.
Pollinators such as bees and bumblebees live off the milkweed nectar.
"They're like insect magnets," said Brianna Borders, plant ecologist for the non-profit Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (xerces.org), which seeks to protect wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat. The 41-year-old group is named for the Xerces Blue butterfly that went extinct on the San Francisco Peninsula in the 1940s.
Milkweed habitat is dwindling in the face of residential development in rural areas, mowing and herbicides to control roadside vegetation, and increasing use of herbicide-resistant crops that allow for more indiscriminate herbicide spraying. Pollinators also face other killers such as the bees' colony collapse disorder and the bats' white nose syndrome. Wildfires and drought haven't helped, either.
Monarch butterflies are especially dependant upon milkweed. They lay their eggs on milkweed. Their eggs hatch into caterpillars that eat the milkweed, then move on to the chrysalis (pupa) stage on the milkweeds before transforming into butterflies.
Monarchs migrate as far as 3,000 miles each spring and fall and they need milkweed all along the way, especially since it takes several generations to complete the journey.
"To me, it's just an amazing journey that this fragile little insect takes," said Joan Dukes, a Highlands Center board member who helped plant Reid's milkweeds. "And look at all the people it's brought together today. So many people care."
Just five years ago, experts thought monarchs didn't migrate through Arizona and overwinter here. But now with the help of people like Gail Morris, conservation specialist for Monarch Watch (monarchwatch.org) and coordinator of the Southwest Monarch Study (swmonarchs.org), scientists realize they do.
Morris and other monarch enthusiasts have tagged more than 8,000 monarchs in Arizona since 2003 in an effort to learn more about their migration patterns, including about 2,000 last year.
Because commercial sources of local milkweed seed are basically non-existent, the Xerces Society with support from the Monarch Joint Venture and its partners such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service went out in search of places to grow milkweed on a large scale.
"This is like a grassroots approach to producing native seed," Borders said.
Borders called quite a few plant nurseries before Stephen and Cindy Scott, co-owners of Terroir Seeds and Underwood Gardens in Chino Valley (underwoodgardens.com) pointed her towards Reid. Cindy Scott is the Highlands Center's former outreach coordinator, and the Scotts now sell their native seeds at the new Native Garden in Prescott (nativegarden.biz/home). The Scotts also volunteered to help plant the milkweed plugs and wrote about the project on their website.
Arizona Western College in Yuma - along with partners in New Mexico, Texas, California and Florida - also is growing milkweed native to the Sonoran Desert, called rush milkweed.
Employees and volunteers from the Desert Botanical Center in Phoenix gathered spider milkweed seeds in central Arizona, then the seedlings got a head start in greenhouses at Greenheart Farms in Arroyo Grande, Calif.
Reid and her friends helped design her milkweed farm including its irrigation system. After leveling and clearing the site and putting down fabric to help hold back weeds, they laid irrigation lines and punched holes in the fabric where they planned to plant the little milkweed seedlings. They put out mulch on top of the black fabric.
Reid's friend Rick Hartner, who creates metal sculptures at his Sitting Duck Studio in Kirkland, even invented a special auger to drill thousands of holes in the weed fabric, saving the volunteers countless hours of work.
Xerces hasn't yet laid out its specific plans to distribute the spider milkweed seeds, but it hopes to distribute the seeds to government agencies conducting restoration projects as well as local residents who just want to help out the pollinators.
Now Reid is spending part of every day taking care of the 2,190 milkweed plants alongside her other duties at her Skull Valley farm, such as her Painted Lady Vineyards, which was named after the Painted Lady butterflies that gathered there when the vines were first planted.
Despite the long dry spell before the monsoon, the milkweed are thriving and growing. Reid said she lost only a dozen or so to harvester ants early on, even though she uses no pesticides or herbicides.
"I can choose the way I live and be a model for others," she said.
"She's done such hard work to make this happen," said Jodi Padgett, who is Reid's partner in growing grapes and getting them bottled into Painted Lady wine.
Late next spring Reid will be looking for volunteers again, this time to help gather the milkweeds' seeds. No doubt many of her previous volunteers will return, just like the butterflies.
"Fiona is a good friend, and there's a lot of good reasons to be out here," volunteer Wren Myers said. "It's a good way to build community."
Fiona sent a thank-you email to all her volunteers recently.
"We don't get paid dollars for doing this. What we get is priceless," she wrote. "One day, in many gardens around this area and scattered throughout the Southwest, the most ephemeral of creatures - a butterfly - will lay her eggs on the milkweed that has been grown there especially for her, and the stunning caterpillar that emerges will have all the nourishment it needs right there.
"Soon thereafter, through the miracle of metamorphosis, a monarch butterfly will continue the northward journey.
"We may only get a fleeting glimpse of this whole cycle, but that's OK - we just need, it seems, to know that we are part of a bigger whole that is life on Earth."