Last evening we went to a presentation by Dr. Orley R. “Chip” Taylor. The large meeting room was full of people with an interest is all pollinators but especially Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterflies.
Dr. Taylor co-founded Monarch Watch in 1992. Among the first group of people that responded to the press release seeking volunteers were about 500 from Des Moines, Iowa. Over the years more butterflies have been tagged in Iowa than any other state. Later research showed that Iowa was the largest breeding ground for butterflies roosting in the Oyamel fir forests in southern Mexico before milkweed was eradicated from agricultural fields and along roadways. Dr. Taylor is soliciting everyone’s help to increase milkweed production so that the wintering population in Mexico will rise again.
We visited the small preserves with another Monarch researcher in 2010. Dr. William “Bill” Calvert was among the first scientists to locate the wintering grounds high in the mountains between Morelia and Mexico City. The Oyamel (Abies religiosa) or sacred fir trees are where most of the Monarchs roost from November to early March before making the several generation flights to the Upper Midwest and points east.
The Oyamel is not only essential to the only insect known to migrate long distances annually to a particular location and habitat, but is also important to the local population. The boughs are used in religious celebrations, hence its second part of its name -religiosa.
We saw trees encased in butterflies and the ground littered with those puddling for moisture and minerals and sometimes those that had not survived the long winter. We were there in early March as the butterflies were getting ready to head north to Texas and Oklahoma to parent the next generation. We saw mating and even an egg on a Tropical Milkweed leaf.
These were probing the soil for much needed water. Dr. Taylor discussed the narrow balance between enough moisture so that the butterflies could utilize their stored fat reserves to survive the 4 to 5 months in Mexico and the danger of heavy rains followed by freezing temperatures that sometimes occur in these 10-11,000 foot mountains.
Here a group was clinging to stems at a seep or little spring. Many looked like their fat stores were much reduced from the plump adults we see here in the Midwest during July and August.
In thinking about ways that Iowans could demonstrate their commitment to the preservation of Monarch butterflies and all pollinators besides planting native forbs, we learned that Iowa is one of only 5 states that does not have a state insect symbol.
In 29 states there is a state butterfly and sometimes there is a state insect and a state butterfly. The Monarch is the state insect or butterfly for these states: Texas, Alabama, West Virginia, Illinois, Minnesota, Vermont, Idaho. Idaho’s Monarchs most likely are from the West Coast population that winters along the California coast. Though several states are not large caterpillar nurseries, they felt it was important to honor this iconic and important representative of the biodiversity that supports us all.
Perhaps Iowa should do the same.