Each of about 50 friends and family received a healthy Monarch butterfly in a glycine envelope–the same type of envelope Dr. Lincoln Brower used to store butterflies when he came to visit the Texas Hill Country during the horrific 2011 drought.
The rest of the butterflies were safely secured in a pop-up cage (actually a converted laundry hamper) until the appropriate moment, which in this case, was the finale of our gathering. Following Robert Martin’s beautiful baritone rendition of the German version of Taps, we released the butterflies. On the count of three, in German: “Eins, zwei, drei!” off they went.
The return of Monarchs return to Michoacán, Mexico, early each November made indigenous peoples believe their ancestors were coming home to visit. Courtesy photo.
Ooos and ahs filled the yard as guests aged six to 82 marveled. The Monarchs lilted on guests’ shirts and shoulders, danced on Cowpen Daisies and milkweeds, and drifted around the yard in their dreamy flight pattern–floating, flitting, fleeting, like so many old souls. You could easily understand why the indigenous peoples of Mexico thought Monarchs were their ancestors returning to visit each fall for Day of the Dead in early November.
“It was better than any church service,” said my 82-year-old mother Hilde.
Because I have a magnificent butterfly garden with plenty of nectar sources including five different types of milkweed, the Monarchs have stuck around. One week later, I’m still enjoying a half-dozen of them, nectaring on late summer blooms.
A week later, Monarchs are still nectaring in our butterfly garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle
I’ve gathered dozens of eggs and found several first instar caterpillars, too. In fact, my partner Local Sprout founder Mitchell Hagney and I hope to raise the caterpillars and offer them as Milkweed and Monarch rearing kits at a future pop-up plant sale in about a month. I can’t imagine a better way to honor my father and celebrate the life cycle. Opa would approve.
First instar Monarch caterpillar and egg. The life cycle continues. Photo by Monika Maeckle
Upon considering writing this post, I revisited some of the negative press on butterfly releases. They “turn butterflies into baubles.” They might “mess with the migration” or “pollute the gene pool.”
It’s true that a handful of shoddy breeders have damaged the commercial butterfly breeding business by sending unhealthy livestock out into the universe while ignorant customers take the blame for mishandling precious butterfly livestock. Here’s a tip for a successful butterfly release: Read the handling instructions and don’t leave live butterflies out in the blazing sun while you touch up your wedding make-up, people.
For those of us who know what we’re doing and which breeders are reputable, I cannot fathom how any of this can be bad or wrong.
“Opa butterfly” collage by family friend Nola Grace Hamilton Garcia, age 8, assembled at Opa’s gathering. Photo by Monika Maeckle
Fifty people who had never thought twice about butterflies have now had a tactile experience with them and will view them forever differently. My niece and nephew Amara, 8, and Alaric Martin, 6, and good friend Nola Grace Hamilton Garcia, 8, chased butterflies around the yard for hours following the release, completely enchanted and forever touched by them.
Conservationists will tell you the most effective path to protecting a species or an ecosystem is engagement. A butterfly release does that.
“A physical connection is absolutely crucial to getting people to care about something,” said Jim Lovett of Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist Monarch butterfly tagging and advocacy organization based at the University of Kansas. “You’ve got to have face time with the species.”
As for speculative claims that thousands of commercially raised butterflies released into the ecosystem will “pollute” the gene pool, there’s no evidence of that to date. And the numbers just don’t add up.
One source close to the industry said an internal survey of breeders suggested fewer than 250,000 Monarch butterflies are released each year around the United States–less than a half a percent of the 57 million Monarch butterflies that migrated last year.
On top of that, those butterflies are released at different times and dispersed throughout the 3.8 million square miles of these United States. As Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch has said repeatedly, “Releases, in the present form, are a minor issue but they sure generate a lot of heat.”
But this post is not meant to argue that point. It hopes to celebrate the life cycle we all share. And to acknowledge, as my wise father would often say, that “life is full of compromises.” In this case, the engagement with butterflies and the resulting embrace of their conservation far outweigh the unproven risks claimed by butterfly release detractors.
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