Thinking Like A Butterfly

By Mike Weilbacher

It’s high summer, which brings with it erratic weather patterns, fierce storms, rising tides, raging stormwater pouring through our communities, and other climate change concerns. As someone who worries about climate change, I have stumbled upon a powerful way to change the world.

We need to think like butterflies.

Consider the butterfly–born as a humble, often ugly caterpillar. A living weed-whacker, caterpillars plow through living plants, mercilessly devouring leaves, hell-bent on defoliation. Tent caterpillars ravage the Schuylkill Center’s cherry trees every spring; gypsy moths ravage whole landscapes. Last year, I planted a stand of dill to attract black swallowtail caterpillars, since that’s one of its host plants. The plan worked: the dill raised about 15 caterpillars, but was a skeleton when the caterpillars were done. Not one living leaf remained.

The caterpillars crawled away, hung upside down, and transformed into chrysalises–their body parts magically melting inside their shells to rearrange as completely different body parts. And a wickedly different creature emerged, the adult.

 


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 Monarch butterflies are exquisite botanists, the females laying their eggs only on members of the milkweed family. Caterpillars ingest the leaves, using toxic chemicals in the leaf’s milk to make them taste terrible—their protection from predatory birds.  

 

While the caterpillar devoured everything, the butterfly has no mouthparts whatsoever for eating solid food. As if making penance for the sins of its youth, a butterfly drinks its world, using its coiled straw of a mouth to sip nectar. When the butterfly flits from flower to flower, it pollinates each in turn, allowing it to make seeds. That’s the key: while the caterpillar takes from the world the resources it needs for survival, the butterfly gives back, turning flowers into seeds that grow the next generation of flowers. Caterpillars devour, but butterflies pollinate.

And they don’t just pollinate the zinnias in your backyard. They pollinate the native plants that sustain entire ecosystems; there would be no milkweeds without the pollinating work of butterflies. More importantly, pollinating insects like bees and butterflies enable so many flower trees to make fruit. Oranges, cherries, grapefruit, grapes (and therefore raisins and wine), apples, lemons, limes: all are produced by pollinating insects like butterflies.

For millennia, humans have been caterpillars, taking from the world the stuff we need to live: food to eat, water to drink, lumber to build homes, coal and oil to power our lives. Living on a finite planet on limited resources, we’re running out of stuff to devour. For us to live sustainably, it’s time we grew up. Metamorphosed. Transformed into butterflies, giving back to the resources that sustain us, metaphorically pollinating the world and making seeds.

Thinking like a butterfly means conserving water, switching to renewables, buying electric cars, radically recycling everything, growing our own organic food, protecting biological diversity, cooling the climate, consuming less stuff, ceasing suburban sprawl across whole landscapes, and so on.

Protecting biological diversity means inviting your nonhuman neighbors into your yard: growing milkweed plants to nurture populations of monarch butterflies, installing bat boxes to support troubled bat populations, keeping your cat inside so it doesn’t kill birds, planting native plants everywhere you can, and more.

Thinking like a butterfly also means getting to know butterflies. They are remarkable, delightfully colorful creatures, extraordinarily adapted—and vanishing. We’ve got a butterfly event happening soon at the Schuylkill Center—come help us count them. And we’ll continue the conversation about thinking like a butterfly.  

 

Annual Butterfly Count

Thursday, July 5, 1 pm, $3/person

Help our staff count the butterflies in our forests and meadows in an annual effort orchestrated by the North American Butterfly Association. To register, call 215-482-7300 ext. 110 or email scee@schuylkillcenter.org.

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A Silent Fall: Vanishing Monarchs

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A Monarch dries its wings after emerging from its chrysalis in our front garden. (Schuylkill Center, 2013)

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The new fall season brings a chain of wonderful events: trees turning color, birds migrating south, goldenrod fields bursting in bloom. But one of my favorite fall phenomena is sadly and strangely absent this year.

There are almost no Monarch butterflies afoot these days.  All summer, I’ve seen only three at the Schuylkill Center.  And my compatriots at other centers like Bowman’s Hill in New Hope and Peace Valley in Doylestown report the same horrific drop.

You know Monarchs, those large orange and black butterflies. Every fall, every Monarch east of the Rocky Mountains begins an extraordinary migration south, one of the strangest in the animal kingdom.  All Monarchs, whether hatching here in Roxborough or up in Nova Scotia, fly slowly to a couple of small, secluded mountain valleys not far from Mexico City.  Somehow encoded in the  pinhead-sized brains of these creatures is a road map to Mexican forests.  (West Coast Monarchs, by contrast, head downslope to multiple small locations along the Pacific coast.)

Arriving in Mexico around All Soul’s Day—folk tradition there says these are the returning souls of Aztec warriors—the butterflies cluster in large groups, clinging to each other, coating fir trees with their bodies.  Nicknamed the Methuselah generation because they live for many months, this group stays in their mountain cluster until the spring.  Then they fly north again, search for  the first growths of milkweed plants, (the host plant for their caterpillars), lay their eggs on the milkweed, and die of exhaustion.

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Graphic by Journey North

When the next generation matures, it pushes north again—and Monarchs ultimately arrive back in Philadelphia in early summer.  Only to head back to Mexico two months later.

Last winter was the worst year on record for the size of the Monarch cluster—their group covered only three acres of forest, down 59% from the previous year, and down 94% from their 1994 high.  Think about it: most of North America’s Monarchs clinging to only three acres of trees.

So the drop this year was expected.  But it does have biologists wondering about the possibility of losing this utterly unique phenomenon.  And all eyes will be on Mexico this year to see how many butterflies return to their winter home.

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A Monarch chrysalis hangs from a milkweed stem. (Schuylkill Center, 2013)

Why the drop?  Scientists expect many culprits, but highest on the list is the use of Roundup-ready crops through much of the Midwest.  Grown to be immune to this herbicide, the plants allow farmers to pour the chemical on fields for weed control, and take out all the milkweed that once supported populations of Monarchs.  Pennsylvania’s Monarchs can’t get through the Farm Belt, so few arrive to reproduce here; few in turn migrate back.

At the Schuylkill Center, we’ll watch the butterfly carefully, plant lots of milkweed to support the creature, and report back to you information as researchers discover it.  We can’t afford to lose this high-flying beauty from our fields.

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director, the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education

Learn more at:

“Bring Back the Monarchs,” Monarch Watch: http://monarchwatch.org/bring-back-the-monarchs/campaign/the-details

“Tracking the Causes of Sharp  Decline of the Monarch Butterfly,” Yale Environment 360: http://e360.yale.edu/feature/tracking_the_causes_of_sharp__decline_of_the_monarch_butterfly/2634/

US Forest Service, Celebrating Wildflowers: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/monarchbutterfly/migration/