Bicycling with Butterflies

Author, educator, and “butterbiker” Sara Dykman observes a monarch sipping nectar on goldenrod during her epic 10,201-mile bike trip as she followed the butterfly’s migration.

Sara Dykman did something that no other human on this planet has ever done, or even thought to do. In 2017, she followed the entire migration route of monarch butterflies from their overwintering spot in Mexican mountains, north to Canada as far as monarchs go, and back to Mexico. Over a full year, she followed the butterflies.

On a bicycle. By herself. Logging 10,201 miles, to be exact. (That’s only like 40 miles each day.) Just amazing. And on a 1989 refurbished bicycle carrying 70 pounds of equipment. 

“Butterbiking,” she dubbed it, and rest assured no other person ever thought to accomplish such a remarkable feat. Happily, she turned her adventures into a book, “Bicycling with Butterflies” to share her story with us. On Thursday, April 14, at 7:00 p.m., Sara virtually visits the Center as part of its spring Thursday Night Live series. “Bicycling with Butterflies” is a free lecture; register for the event to receive the Zoom link. 

In an email conversation last week, I asked her why she did this unique feat– and how she keeps her answer to the “why” question fresh, as I am only the latest in a long line of thousands of people who have asked her this.

“I started biking with butterflies,” she told me, “to have an adventure and learn about the monarchs, but the more I learned, the more I realized that the monarchs needed me to be their voice. My tour became a publicity stunt to catch people’s attention and help them learn that the monarch’s migration could disappear if we don’t all plant habitat, especially milkweed, which is the only food source of the monarch caterpillar. And yes,” she continued, “it can get old answering the same questions, but that’s kinda the point. I just remember that every question can lead to another person noticing monarchs and possibly creating habitat to help save them.”

In her book, she recounts another question she was asked repeatedly, starting off in Mexico, “Estas solas?” people would ask. “Are you alone?” She told me that “I’ve turned this question into a joke. I always answer it by saying I wasn’t alone. I was with the butterflies.”  

At the moment, there are no monarchs in Philadelphia– yet. As Sara will recount, monarchs overwintering in Mexico fly into Texas, exhausted, and lay eggs on milkweed plants emerging there. Those next-generation monarchs push further north, so it may be several generations before we see them in late spring, early summer. But monarch populations have been plummeting in recent decades, threatening this unique migration phenomenon. 

“Monarchs have seen a downward decline,” she said, “mostly because of habitat loss and climate change.” Midwestern farm fields are routinely sprayed by herbicides that remove “weeds” like milkweed, and as milkweed populations drop, monarchs have been declining too. The butterfly is hit at the other end of its migration, too, as logging in Mexico’s mountains compromises the fir forest where they spend the winter. Of course, climate change upends their life cycle across all of North America. 

Climate change worries her “with every ounce of my being. The earth has found this incredible balance. The monarchs arrive (in Texas) just as milkweeds are emerging, that alone feels impossibly perfect. Then you think about the wind, rain, weather, every system really. They are all connected to give monarchs and their neighbors what they need. As the climate changes, this balance will be destroyed.”

As she met people on her butterbike five years ago, she was also routinely asked whether or not monarchs needed to be saved. I wondered if people were still asking that or has the needle moved on their story? “Sure, I think the needle is moving,” she responded. “People are starting to share their yards with their more-than-human neighbors, and more people than ever know about monarchs and their plight. But we need examples of new ways of living on every street in every town, because until we learn to share the earth the monarchs won’t be safe. On my tour, it was when I stayed with people that were planting gardens and sharing that I found the most hope. I think the monarchs are amazing because they give us a first step to helping the planet. All you have to do is grow a native garden.”

As we ended our exchange, she offered, “Monarchs are so generous. They will visit even a small garden (even a potted plant) if you give them the opportunity. They will help you be part of an adventure. They can be your teachers too, because they ask you to slow down and notice the world around you. And that world is really, extraordinarily wonderful.”

Join Sara on this adventure Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. and meet the world’s one and only butterbiker.

This week in climate. “Why are we talking about anything but climate change?” wonders Mary McNamara, culture columnist and critic with the Los Angeles Times, in a scathing op-ed piece. “Our ability to lower atmospheric temperature has thus far been flung to the four (now regularly hurricane-level) winds, because a few of us are making too much money from fossil fuels and the rest of us are busy weighing in on things like ‘cancel culture’ or what the film academy should do with Will Smith to notice that we are boiling ourselves to death.” She opined, “The first thing we need to do is stop using the term ‘climate change.’” It’s a climate crisis, she says, and of course she is dead-on.

By: Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The Amazing Monarch Migration: A Status Report

How are this year’s monarch’s doing? Join us and National Monarch expert Dr. Chip Taylor for our free, virtual event to find out.

The monarch butterfly, that large insect perfectly decked out for Halloween– or a Flyers game– in its orange and black cloak, undergoes one of the most extraordinary migrations in the animal kingdom. Butterflies across America and even Canada.

The monarch butterfly defies logic, for embedded in a small collection of nerve cells generously called a brain is a GPS directing the insect to fly from Roxborough all the way to a mountain valley near Mexico City, where it joins every other monarch from east of the Rockies (western monarchs head to the Pacific coast). As you read this, monarchs across the eastern US and even Canada are flying south, many along the eastern seaboard; most are near or even in Mexico already.  

Once in Mexico, they gather in large groups to coat fir trees with millions of their bodies, a remarkable sight visited by thousands of eco-tourists annually. The butterflies wait out the long winter, living five months—Methuselah territory for an insect.

In early spring, they begin heading north, make it into Texas, lay their eggs—and die. It takes another generation or two for monarchs to make it back to Pennsylvania, not until early summer. So the butterflies hatching in my garden will start flying more than a thousand miles to a place they have never been. How’s that for Mother Nature’s planning?

If you’d like a treat, drive to Cape May point soon and watch clusters of them funneling down New Jersey hop across the Delaware Bay to get to the mainland and continue their journey south. 

While it’s remarkable that an insect can make this migration, I’m saddened to report that this phenomenon is endangered as monarch numbers have plummeted in recent years, compromised by climate, pesticides, Midwestern “milkweed deserts,” and over-logging in Mexico. 

So how are this year’s monarch’s doing? How is the insect holding up? Should it be declared an endangered species?

We hope to answer this question on Thursday, October 21 at 7:00 p.m. with our Thursday Night L!VE presentation, “The Monarch’s Amazing Migration: a Status Report.” National monarch expert Dr. Chip Taylor, founder and director of Monarch Watch, the organization that has helped place 35,000 monarch waystations across the country, joins us from his Kansas base to share the creature’s story and its status. Monarch Watch started in 1992 as an outreach program dedicated to engaging the public in studies of monarchs, and is now concentrating its efforts on monarch conservation. 

“In real estate,” Dr. Taylor says, “it’s location, location, location. And for monarchs and other wildlife it’s habitat, habitat, habitat. We have a lot of habitat in this country, but we are losing it at a rapid pace. Development is consuming 6,000 acres a day, a loss of 2.2 million acres per year. Further, the overuse of herbicides along roadsides and elsewhere is turning diverse areas that support monarchs, pollinators, and other wildlife into grass-filled landscapes that support few species. The adoption of genetically modified soybeans and corn have further reduced monarch habitat. If these trends continue, monarchs are certain to decline, threatening the very existence of their magnificent migration.” 

Female monarchs are exceptional botanists, laying their eggs only on one family of plants, the milkweeds. She tastes plants with her feet, laying eggs on the undersides of milkweed leaves. Caterpillars hatch from eggs, and immediately begin munching on milkweed—the only food they are adapted to eat. The creatures have evolved to take the noxious chemicals found in milkweed sap and use it to make themselves—both caterpillar and adult—bad-tasting for any bird that may try to eat it.

A very clever “Got Milkweed?” campaign was started years ago, and more and more home gardeners like me began planting milkweed– and the Schuylkill Center has been selling milkweeds for years.

To address these changes and restore habitats for monarchs, pollinators, and other wildlife, Monarch Watch is initiating a nationwide landscape restoration program called “Bring Back the Monarchs.” The goals of this program are to restore 20 milkweed species, used by monarch caterpillars as food, to their native ranges throughout the United States and to encourage the planting of nectar-producing native flowers that support adult monarchs and other pollinators.

This program is an outgrowth of the Monarch Waystation Program started by Monarch Watch in 2005. “While these sites, mostly habitats created in home gardens, schoolyards, parks, and commercial landscapes, contribute to monarch conservation, it is clear that to save the monarch migration we need to do more,” Taylor said. “ We need to think on a bigger scale and we need to think ahead, to anticipate how things are going to change as a result of population growth, development, changes in agriculture, and most of all, changes in the climate.”

According to Taylor, we need a comprehensive plan on how to manage the fragmented edges and marginal areas created by development and agriculture, since it is these edges that support monarchs, many of our pollinators, and the many forms of wildlife that are sustained by the seeds, fruits, nuts, berries, and foliage that result from pollination. “In effect,” Taylor argues, “we need a new conservation ethic, one dealing with edges and marginal areas that addresses the changes of the recent past and anticipates those of the future.” 

Dr. Chip Taylor has been pioneering in butterfly conservation for decades. Meet him by joining me in a Thursday Night L!VE virtual lecture this week. Register for the free event.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director 

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/