Expert offers ways to help monarch butterflies on their amazing migration
If you ask Gail Morris why she's so dedicated to teaching people about monarch butterflies, she has a quick answer.
"They need our help," she said. "Monarch populations have decreased and their migration is endangered because of vanishing habitats across North America. Simple things like planting milkweed rest stops can help save the migration."
Increasing pesticide and insecticide use on genetically modified crops also is killing off milkweed, the only place monarchs lay eggs. A bill in Congress, the "Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act" (H.R. 872), would increase pesticide use even more.
Just five years ago, experts were telling her they didn't think monarchs traveled through Arizona, let alone spent the winter here, said Morris, conservation specialist for Monarch Watch (monarchwatch.org) and coordinator of the Southwest Monarch Study.
But 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.
A handful of monarchs tagged in Arizona have been recorded in the two major over-wintering sites for monarchs, Mexico and California. A small number even winter in the greater Phoenix area.
Monarchs are delicate, yet tough. They have the longest migration of any insect by a long shot, often traveling more than 1,500 miles from Canada to Mexico in one generation although it takes three to five generations to return north in the spring. Scientists don't know how descendants find the wintering sites of their ancestors.
Only about 10 percent survive to adulthood. They are native only to this continent.
Monarchs travel north through Yavapai County in April and May, then south through here in September and October. They tend to follow riparian corridors where they can find nectar flowers and rest, and will go out of their way to return to milkweed.
"We know you have milkweed up here," Morris said of Yavapai County. "We just don't have enough observers."
In an effort to recruit people to watch for and report monarchs, plus create way stations for them, Morris travels far and wide from her Valley of the Sun home.
Last weekend she and her husband Bob traveled to Cottonwood to lead a free three-hour workshop for teachers during the Verde Valley Birding and Nature Festival. She gave away several kinds of colorful milkweed seeds, and even gave away beautiful gold-speckled chrysalis (cocoons) from her small yard.
Karen Harwood, the science center manager for the Cottonwood-Oak Creek schools who attended the workshop, said she hopes to set up monarch way stations at schoolyards.
"I've just always been fascinated by butterflies," Harwood said. Her friend Jere Diehl joined her in the free workshop.
"I just feel we need butterflies along with everything else," said fellow teacher Carol Karber, who also attended the workshop.
Both Bob and Gail were full of details about the amazing abilities of monarchs.
Like clockwork across North America, the monarch migration begins when the noon sun angle hits 56-57 degrees, and the migration abruptly ends when the angle hits 46-47 degrees, Bob Morris said.
"They're very celestially oriented," Gail Morris told the teachers. "And they love to hook rides."
The monarchs often will ride the wind at the head of a storm front, she said. One tagged monarch was seen traveling 150 miles in one day.