The migratory life of the butterfly inspires wonder and scientific research

“What you see blows your mind,” said Douglass, 74, an entomologist, pilot and former director of the Foothills Trail Conservancy. The tour group he was part of was not allowed through the rest area. They had to stand on the sidelines, but it was quite a spectacle.

“You just look down there,” he said, “and they’re every limb in front of you as far as you can see in the woods.”

A typical monarch butterfly weighs about half a gram – almost nothing – but the trees sag under the combined weight of hundreds and thousands of insects perched on its limbs.

Douglass recalled: “Every now and again a limb would crack and many butterflies would fly and spin.”

It was a magical week for Douglass, who had a keen interest in “all things Mother Nature” since childhood. Douglass began a spider collection at Clemson University and made the first official sighting of the venomous brown recluse spider in the state, and in 1985 he helped transport the first recluse cage to release in Table Rock, South Carolina.

But over the years, the monarch butterfly has become a special attraction. Each fall, monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains travel 3,000 miles from summer to find safe haven for the winter, conserving energy to begin the journey north again in March. The butterflies stop in the southern United States to lay eggs and die shortly after. But the next generation continues its journey northward. This is the fourth generation of the year, which usually opposes the end of spring and begins to migrate south again. Migrating monarchs usually pass through western North Carolina in late September.

Although there have been reports of western monarch wintering grounds in California dating back to the 1860s, for a long time no one knew where monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains went when the weather turned cold.

“I think it’s one of the neatest stories in all of entomology in the last 50 years,” Douglass said. “For decades and decades, they just disappeared. They were like birds. And sure enough, they were doing more or less the same thing. This is an incredible story.”

This story was not yet finished in 1969, when Douglas graduated from Clemson University, or a few years later, received a master’s degree in entomology from the same institution. When National Geographic announced the discovery of the famous monarch butterfly’s Mexican wintering grounds in August 1976, Douglas had completed a five-year stint in the US Air Force and had started a new job as an entomologist at Clemson University’s Cooperative Extension Service. the basics.

“I wanted so badly to get down there and see them, but it was almost 40 years before I could,” Douglass said.

Heyward Douglass is next to a larger-than-life monarch. Donated photo

Large and beautiful in black and orange, the monarch butterfly is as charismatic as an insect. Their caterpillars are equally eye-catching, white, black and yellow circling plump bodies until it’s time to metamorphose into jewel-like chrysalises, creamy-green and golden.

“They are very beautiful animals,” Douglass said. “If you want to have a banner that will be your flag to walk down the street, there is certainly nothing better than the monarch butterfly. It just lends itself to that kind of love from the general public.”

Conservation groups have been sounding the alarm about monarch butterflies for decades, as their wintering grounds in both Mexico and California have suffered major population declines. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the monarch population that winters in Mexico declined by 84% between 1996 and 2014. A smaller western population that spends the winter on the Pacific coast in California has dwindled to 10 million. Only 1,914 people in 2021 in the 1980s.

California’s 2022 count was staggeringly high at more than 247,000 butterflies, but Monarch Joint Venture, a nonprofit partnership, noted in a press release that “we didn’t record it five years ago,” when the census recorded similar numbers. A level of 200,000 to 300,000 butterflies “still represents a population decline of 95% from historical numbers,” the organization writes. For a variety of reasons, monarchs, like many other insects, undergo great changes from year to year.

The butterfly is not listed under the Endangered Species Act, but that’s not because it doesn’t deserve it. In 2020, the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined that listing the butterfly was “warranted, but would preclude work on higher priority listing activities.” However, in June, the IUCN announced that it would add the monarch butterfly to its Red List of Threatened Species as an endangered species.

“Monarch butterflies and their extraordinary migrations are difficult to monitor on the brink of collapse, but there are signs of hope,” Anna Walker, IUCN’s head of monarch butterfly assessment, said in a press release. “Many people and organizations have come together to protect this butterfly and its habitats.”

According to the Monarch Collaborative, loss of breeding, migration and wintering habitat is one of the greatest threats to monarch populations. Chemicals used to control weeds and insects can also harm monarchs, and climate change is making some habitats less suitable than before.

In recent decades, there has been a push to get people across the continent to make their communities more monarch-friendly by planting nectar-producing flowers and milkweed, whose leaves are the only acceptable food source for monarch caterpillars. It’s a message with the potential for great impact, Douglass said.

“What most people can do is very small, but when you do it, thousands and thousands and maybe millions of people put stuff out there, like a lot of other things, it’s amplified,” he said.

He gave the example of the bluebird, which went from being as common as the robin in the 1920s to being on the brink of extinction in the 1970s. A campaign to get the public to put up bluebird boxes has resulted in a noticeable increase in the population. . The United States now has a healthy, stable population of bluebirds.

The mystery of the monarch’s winter home is far from the only mystery surrounding the monarch butterfly.

Just 11 days before the IUCN announced serious threats to North America’s migratory monarch butterfly, a team of six researchers has published a paper that suggests the situation may be less dire than announced.

“There’s this perception out there that monarch populations are in serious trouble, but we found that’s not the case at all,” Andy Davis, one of the study’s authors and an assistant research scientist at the University of Georgia, told UGA Today’s Leigh Beeson. . “It goes against what everyone thinks, but we’ve found them to be quite good. In fact, monarchs are actually one of the most common butterflies in North America.”

The researchers compiled more than 135,000 monarch butterfly observations entered by the North American Butterfly Association between 1993 and 2018 to look for patterns and drivers of population change. During a two-day period each summer, the organization and volunteers record butterfly sightings in a designated circle 15 miles in diameter.

Although overwintering populations in Mexico and California have seen sharp declines, the researchers found an overall annual increase of 1.35% in the butterfly’s relative abundance. Traffic, bad weather and other obstacles can make the journey south more difficult than before, but the findings suggest that summer breeding makes up for those losses, the researchers said.

“A single female can lay 500 eggs, so given the right resources, they’re capable of making a huge comeback,” Davis said. “This means that winter colony decline is almost like a red herring.”

These results don’t mean people are complacent about the butterfly’s survival, as rising global temperatures could bring new threats not just to monarchs, but to all insects. However, study co-author and UGA professor William Snyder thinks there are other butterfly species that need more protection.

“We don’t want to give the impression that insect conservation isn’t important, because it is,” he told UGA Today. “Just maybe this particular bug isn’t in as much trouble as we thought.”

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The August 1976 issue of National Geographic reported the discovery of the monarch’s winter home.

Population numbers aside, monarchs have something that no other butterfly species has, at least in comparable amounts—huge, enthusiastic popularity. This can be a powerful tool to save not only the monarch, but all other species that depend on similar habitats.

The United States is home to over 4,000 bee species, 1,120 bird species, and 750 butterfly species. Many of the same actions designed to help monarchs—reducing pesticide use, landscaping with native plants, protecting natural grasslands—can also help them.

“If you’re interested in monarchs and your heart goes into it, you’re going to have to treat the other things that come out the same way,” Douglass said. “I think the monarch is a flag for the preservation of the species and perhaps of our own, the more people we think along those lines, the better.”

Celebrate the Monarch

The first Mountain Monarch Festival will come to Gorges State Park in Transylvania on Saturday, September 24th from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm, celebrating the monarch butterfly during its migration season.

The event, which will be held at the park’s visitor center, will draw attention to the decline in wintering numbers of the species. It will include educational programs and exhibits, including monarch-themed children’s crafts, live music, a food truck, a holiday photo board, local art for sale and a monarch migration passport to guide families through monarch-themed activities. Heyward Douglass, a park naturalist entomologist who has visited the monarch’s wintering grounds in Mexico and served on the board of the Foothills Trail Conservancy since 1989, will deliver the keynote presentation.

The creeks are located along the monarch migration route, and each year in late September, the butterflies fly over the park’s visitor center on their way south to the tall fir forests of the Neovolcanic Mountains of Mexico, where they stay until spring returns.

The event is free, although you will need to register in advance with your Monarch Festival Registration email address and the number of people in your party. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view.. It will be held rain or shine and is sponsored by Friends of the Gorges State Park and organized in partnership with Monarch Watch, the NC Cooperative Extension Service and the NC Department of Commerce. For more information, visit


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