‘Magnificent Monarchs’ return to Red Oaks Nature Center

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published September 4, 2018

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MADISON HEIGHTS — They’re incredible insects renowned for their beauty and astonishing feat of migrating across the country. They’re also crucial to the health of the environment. 

And yet the butterfly known as the monarch, with its distinctive orange and black wings, is in danger due to the scarcity of milkweed, its food source as a caterpillar. 

This topic will be a focus of “Magnificent Monarchs,” a popular event returning to the Red Oaks Nature Center, 30300 Hales St. in Madison Heights, from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15. Admission costs $5 per person. To register, call the nature center at (248) 585-0100. 

According to Sarah Hudson, the naturalist at Red Oaks, the nature center has offered other programs about monarchs and pollinators for the past several years, usually in the spring or summer. For the upcoming presentation, monarch enthusiast and retired teacher Val Preston will be speaking.  

“We usually get 10-30 attendees at these events. However, this program will have a slightly different spin, as this is the first time that a ‘Journey North’ activity will be done where participants craft paper butterflies to take part in a symbolic migration,” Hudson said. “The paper butterflies will be mailed to a classroom in Mexico, where they will spend the winter and then return north — just as live monarchs do!”

Indeed, monarchs are notable in how the last generation of monarchs for the summer will migrate to the mountains of central Mexico. This is unlike most butterflies in Michigan, which spend the winter in their pupa stage in a chrysalis. The monarch weighs less than half of a penny, and yet it flies up to 2,000 miles.

Along the way, monarchs play the role of pollinator, helping flowers such as lavender, sunflowers and lupine to spread their genes, diversify and grow. But now, monarchs are in danger since milkweed is in decline due to habitat loss caused by humans developing the land, as well as the use of herbicides.  

Milkweed is toxic to most animals, but monarch caterpillars love it. Eating it is what makes them toxic to other animals — a defense mechanism retained as adult butterflies. The colors of the monarch are a warning to potential predators to stay away since they’re poisonous. 

According to MonarchWatch.org — a national organization committed to monarch conservation, research and education — land development in the U.S. consumes 6,000 acres a day, which per year equates to an area the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.  

People can help by planting milkweed on their property to provide food and habitat for monarchs. There are several species of milkweed that the caterpillars eat to survive. The nature center has been growing swamp milkweed, for example. This and other species of milkweed can be purchased at plant nurseries. It’s important, however, to make sure they do not contain neonicotinoids, which are insecticidal compounds that kill monarchs and other insects. 

Milkweed can be a pleasing addition to a garden, coming in a variety of colors including orange, pink, purple and white, and producing a sweet scent.

“I find that monarchs provide a connection between human behavior and the natural world,” said Val Preston, a season programming specialist at the nature center. “This is a common butterfly that is easily recognizable, and because of that, patrons have an interest in them. This is key to help them in their survival. Knowledge is power. The fascination I see is motivation for me to continue on.”