As monarchs migrate, environmental activists plan for their return

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published October 22, 2020

 Eve Sandoval, chairwoman of the Madison Heights Bloom Project, shares a moment with a monarch butterfly. The Bloom Project is dedicated to creating spaces around Madison Heights that support pollinator species and educating the public on beneficial insects.

Eve Sandoval, chairwoman of the Madison Heights Bloom Project, shares a moment with a monarch butterfly. The Bloom Project is dedicated to creating spaces around Madison Heights that support pollinator species and educating the public on beneficial insects.

Photo by Crystal Fox

  A sign at Sandoval’s home designating a garden as a monarch waystation.

A sign at Sandoval’s home designating a garden as a monarch waystation.

Photo by Eve Sandoval

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MADISON HEIGHTS — It’s the time of the year when monarch butterflies begin migrating to warmer climes. Over the summer, efforts were underway in Madison Heights to help support these beautiful pollinators, known for their orange and black wings. Now, plans are being made to support their return this spring.

Unlike most butterflies in Michigan, which spend the winter in their pupa stage in a chrysalis, the last generation of monarchs for the summer will migrate south across Lake Michigan to their winter home in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. They begin their descent from late August through October in the fall, and spring migration back to Michigan from March through June.

A monarch butterfly weighs less than half a penny, yet it flies up to 2,000 miles. To do this, monarchs depend on two things: flowers with nectar for feeding and milkweed for breeding.  

Eve Sandoval is a resident of Madison Heights who has been raising monarchs in captivity — more than 150 since May, the last of which have now begun their cross-country journey. She has also been leading efforts to provide monarchs with what they need to survive.

“Since the monarch population is down 90% due to habitat loss and pesticides, it’s important to me to help get the numbers back up,” Sandoval said. “The last generation I’ve released is en route to Mexico. … Monarchs travel about 50-100 miles per day, and it can take up to two months to arrive at their destination.”

Sandoval is also the chairwoman of the Bloom Project, a group formed as a subcommittee of the Madison Heights Environmental Citizens Committee.

“The objective of the Bloom Project is to install pollinator-friendly gardens throughout public spaces in Madison Heights over the next few years,” she said.  

The first garden was installed over the summer at Gravel Park, located at 30479 Palmer Ave, where it can be seen along a sidewalk parallel to Barrington Street. The group also has plans to install gardens in Rosie’s Park, Wildwood Park and Monroe Park. The Bloom Project is also thinking about planting gardens in spaces around the Madison Heights Public Library and Madison Heights City Hall next summer.  

The Bloom Project is also planning to hold free public classes next summer on how the community can help welcome pollinator species by creating small spaces for native flowers and hosting plants on their own property. The classes will also serve to educate the public on the value of butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects.


‘Monarch Heights’
Last year, Madison Heights amended an ordinance to allow milkweed in the city. The plant was previously banned under an ordinance dealing with noxious weeds, due to its milky sap that contains toxins harmful to pets and people if consumed in vast quantities. However, pets and other animals generally avoid milkweed, so the risk is low.

In their caterpillar form, monarchs only eat milkweed. Milkweed contains a latex compound that makes it toxic, and in consuming milkweed, the caterpillars become toxic themselves. This quality is retained in the adult butterfly, and is the reason for the bright orange wings, which serve as a warning to would-be predators.

This keeps the monarchs safe so that they can do their important work pollinating many different flowers, which allows the plants to reproduce and create seeds with more genetic diversity.     

The butterflies themselves even produce scents resembling flowers to attract the opposite sex. The male monarch has two black dots on each wing towards the lower half, which are scent glands to attract females. Another curious detail is how butterflies taste with their feet.     

At the time of the ordinance amendment last year, there were several monarch waystations in the city. Monarch waystations feature at least 100 square feet of space, with exposure to at least six hours of sunlight per day. There should be at least 10 milkweed plants, and several varieties of annual, biannual or perennial nectar plants, clustered close enough that they provide shelter from predators and the elements.

A waystation involves active management and should avoid the use of insecticides. After the first year, the gardens require less effort since they’re adapted to the soil and climate, resist pests and help filter water. There are also many plants, bushes and trees that can serve as hosts for butterflies and moths. For example, the herbs dill, fennel, parsley, common rue, golden alexander and wild carrot plant are host plans for the black swallowtail caterpillar.

Madison Heights Mayor Roslyn Grafstein has been a prominent voice advocating for the care of monarch butterflies. She helped overhaul the city’s noxious weed ordinance last year, and in January she hosted the city’s first meeting of the Bloom Project, chaired by Sandoval.  

She said that the Bloom Project has been raising funds to install more pollinator gardens in the city by way of events such as the native plant sale at the strolling music festival, Trail Tunes 2020, which took place Oct. 3. The sale was hosted by the Environmental Citizens Committee.

“For years, I had pollinator plants such as coneflowers in my garden,” Grafstein said. “And this year I feel I see more butterflies and bees than in the past.”

    
Getting involved
Those wishing to do their part can get started by visiting facebook.com/thebloomprojectMH, where one can ask questions and learn more.

“It’s a very supportive community,” Sandoval said. “The most important tip for the community to get involved is to adopt a small native landscape that is full sun on their property, and plant annuals, perennials and biennials like common and swamp milkweed, which are both a nectar plant and a host plant for monarchs.”

She also recommends including plants such as liatris, black-eyed susan, pink coneflower, butterfly weed, lantana, blazing star, goldenrod, hyssops and phlox, among others.

“It’s important to avoid spraying pesticides, herbicides and weed killers around your property to keep these chemicals from seeping into the pollinator gardens,” Sandoval said. “When you choose to plant more native plant species, there is very little maintenance, watering and weeding as the beds become established.”

The Environmental Citizens Committee is currently working on a monarch-themed day for Madison Heights that would be celebrated each year, in hopes of further educating the public.

“Details are currently in the works, but we feel this will be exciting for the community to be involved in, and a good educational resource that will also help the community to learn valuable ways to welcome our monarchs back to Michigan,” Sandoval said.

“Monarchs taught me the power of transformation and how we can change at any point in our lives,” she continued. “My summer with butterflies has been a magical time in my life, and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to care and raise them, and to also be able to share my experiences with the community. During COVID, I feel Madison Heights was uplifted by the efforts of those who cared for and released all of the beautiful butterflies into Madison Heights.”  

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