Adopt a caterpillar: Locals urged to create monarch habitats, foster chrysalids
A Skull Valley milkweed farm is attracting monarchs before it even produces seed pods, so now the farm needs locals to plant milkweed this fall so they can adopt the monarch caterpillars next spring.
Gail Morris, conservation specialist for Monarch Watch and coordinator of the Southwest Monarch Study, visited Prescott Sunday to spread the word.
Morris educated about 30 people who stopped by her presentation at the Highlands Center for Natural History during its annual "Grow Native!" fall plant sale.
She also happened to find numerous monarchs flying around Watson Woods Saturday and Sunday, and even tagged one to track its migration. The monarchs will continue to fly through here throughout September. They like to hang out in riparian areas on nectar plants such as sunflowers.
"So many believed for a long time that Arizona didn't have any monarch butterflies," said Morris, who called the monarch the "jewel of the butterfly world" for its large size and its amazing migration across North America each spring and fall.
Monarch numbers have plummeted because of the loss of habitat that features their favorite plant, the milkweed. They lay their eggs on milkweed, then the caterpillars eat milkweed leaves before transforming into butterflies.
"There's been a lot of talk that monarchs could lose their migration within 25 years," Morris said. If they don't migrate, they freeze to death.
They need milkweed all along their migration corridors, and different varieties grow all over the country.
But milkweed is hard to find in large quantities commercially. The Highlands Center tried to find some plants or seeds for its native plant sales but to no avail, although it is selling numerous other plants that provide valuable nectar for butterflies and other pollinators. The sale continues this week from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. daily until plants are gone; for more information call 776-9550 or go online to highlandscenter.org.
Since the milkweeds generally aren't available commercially, citizens are taking it into their own hands with the help of federal grants and non-profits like the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
Dozens of volunteers and the Xerces Society helped Fiona Reid plant more than 2,000 milkweed seedlings on her Skull Valley farm southwest of Prescott this spring.
Experts don't understand how monarchs hone in on milkweed in flight, but Reid's farm was an amazing example of monarchs' talent. In fewer than two months, monarchs not only found her milkweed farm but also laid eggs and produced caterpillars.
By next spring when more arrive, Morris and Reid hope to find foster homes for caterpillars throughout Yavapai County so volunteers can keep an eye them. When they turn into butterflies, the volunteers can then tag them to track their migration routes. Volunteers need to create "way stations" that feature milkweed, nectar plants, tree or bush shelters and water. Pesticides must be avoided.
One monarch that Morris tagged in her own Phoenix yard was reported in Mexico, she related Sunday.
Reid will start harvesting milkweed seeds next spring to distribute to other butterfly lovers, too. The process is still being set up.
In the meantime, people who want to help monarchs right away and maybe even adopt caterpillars next spring should be planting milkweed now, Morris said. They can contact Morris via the Southwest Monarch Study webpage at swmonarchs.org with questions.
Locals can harvest wild milkweed if they seek it out in riparian areas. Master Gardener Bob Gessner told Morris Sunday that he has spotted milkweed at several spots on the Prescott National Forest around Prescott. No matter what variety, milkweeds usually sport large pods by this time of year that makes them easy to identify.
Morris said people can harvest about 100 seeds from each milkweed pod. To see if they're ready, gently squeeze the pods to see if they pop open. If they do, they're ready. If they're already popped open, it might be too late.
A few places online do sell the seeds such as ButterflyEncounters.com, Morris added.
Several organizations already have stepped up to create local monarch habitat, such as the Audubon Society and Highlands Center for Natural History, which have teamed up to enhance habitat in a meadow near the Highlands Center on the Prescott National Forest. Prescott Audubon volunteers led by Cathy Palm-Gessner planted milkweed and nectar plants throughout the meadow this year and last.
Anita Fry of Yavapai County High School in Prescott Valley attended Sunday's workshop and said her school's students plan to grow milkweed on several acres next to the school.
Government agencies such as the Arizona Department of Transportation also are trying to help, Morris said. ADOT now includes milkweed seeds in its roadside restoration mixes.
"Wherever there's milkweed, they'll come," said Morris, relating how she found several monarchs in a Hobby Lobby parking lot in Phoenix where desert milkweed grows between parking spaces.