2009-09-17 / Local & State

Monarch Butterflies Getting Big Send-Off


PITTSBURGH (AP) - As she watched a recently hatched monarch flutter south, June Bernard smiled at the thought of the butterfly's upcoming 2,000- mile journey to Mexico's warmer wintering climes.

"It never ceases to amaze me, even after doing this all these years,'' she said.

Bernard, 55, a resident of Hampton about 10 miles north of Pittsburgh, is one of several western Pennsylvanians who rear monarchs, bringing them indoors as tiny white eggs on milkweed leaves and giving them safe haven as they hatch into caterpillars that morph into chrysalises and transform into black-andorange butterflies over the course of a month.

The process gives monarchs, a victim of disappearing habitat, a fighting chance at survival and the opportunity to serve as a poster child for a number of other less attractive but nonetheless important species of "migrating pollinators,'' which range from rodents to birds to bugs.

"We're losing habitat at an in- credible rate,'' said Chip Taylor, a University of Kansas biology professor and director of Monarch Watch, which teaches people to raise and tag monarchs for tracking. "We're losing 6,000 acres a day due to development - that's almost 10 square miles a day that's lost to wildlife. That adds up.''

Monarchs depend on milkweed, a native plant on which they lay their eggs. Caterpillars eat an exclusive milkweed diet, which infuses them with a toxin to protect them from predators such as birds. But milkweed is disappearing with the land that is being developed.

"People think that milkweed is a weed, but really it's a very important plant,'' said Debbie Priore, a resident of Shadyside northeast of downtown Pittsburgh. "I'll find a stand along a road and use it to harvest for my caterpillars, and all of the sudden, it's gone.''

Priore raises monarchs in her apartment and releases them with the help of her four children. A librarian in the Children's Department at the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, she shares her monarchs with young library patrons.

"Rearing monarchs teaches lessons on a variety of levels,'' she said. "They're just so fascinating. I've stood with a magnifying glass watching a (caterpillar) emerge from an egg. And I've watched the final stage going into its chrysalis.

"You really can have nature in the city.''

Monarch Watch provides small stickers for a minor fee that people who raise the butterflies affix to the lower half of one wing. The stickers include a number that can be tracked back to a database to show how far the monarch traveled from the location where it was tagged.

This information helps scientists learn about migration patterns and identify places where monarchs might be struggling to survive.

It is rare that a tagged butterfly will be found and reported - the odds are about 1 in 100.

That's why it was so special when Bernard, who has reared monarchs for more than 20 years and runs a program at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium to help others raise the butterflies, learned that one of her monarchs had been found.

"It was a male monarch that left the zoo grounds in 2003 and made it all the way to Mexico,'' she said. "I got a certificate in the mail.''

Good weather and adequate rainfall has made 2009 a "banner year'' for monarchs said Bernard, who is on track to raise and release about 200, her most ever. The ones she releases now through October will migrate south, where they will lay eggs for the next generation, which will migrate north in the spring when the weather turns warmer.

Mark Klingler, a scientific illustrator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, began rearing different kinds of butterflies and moths as a child in New Jersey so he could draw them.

Four years ago he started raising monarchs with his wife, Cathy, at their home in Lower Burrell about 20 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

"I was noticing that the eggs were disappearing and I found that jumping spiders and ants were eating them,'' Klingler said. "So I started to rear them just in the hopes that they'd show up again next year. And sure enough, they did. "

This year, the Klinglers have raised more than 100 monarchs.

"Each year it's a different amount, but they are returning and hanging around our yard,'' Klingler said. "I even see them sleeping in our trees.''

Someday, Klingler hopes to go on vacation to visit the butterflies in the west central mountains of Mexico - several tour companies create entire vacations to give visitors a close-up look at clusters of wintering monarchs.

Up close and personal

It was an unforgettable trip that Tom Pawlesh, 53, a resident of Jefferson Hills about 10 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, made nine years ago with his wife and daughter. A U.S. Airlines pilot, he's reared and tagged monarchs for decades. Several of his butterflies have been found in Mexico.

"It was just amazing,'' he said. "We stood in one grove where they said there were probably 10 million monarch butterflies. They were flying all around, and one day when it was warm they all came down to the stream and sat on the banks and drank. It sounded like falling leaves.''

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