Local beekeepers join Laura Bush to save monarch butterflies
By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
Jodi Zachmann remembers seeing butterflies everywhere growing up in Michigan, and none more so than when she was taken to a sanctuary island. Once you took the ferry to the island, there were no cars there — only plants, flowers, and thousands of butterflies.
“They would land on you,” she said. “You could stick your finger out and they would literally land on you.”
But when she moved to Liberty Hill and started a honey farm three years ago, Zachmann says she almost never saw the creatures.
The significance of the fact became clear to Zachmann when she first read that monarch butterflies have experienced a near 90 percent drop in population in the last two decades, and that Texas is a critical stop for their annual migration.
“I thought, this is like what we’re going through with bees, but it’s even worse,” she said.
Since then, Zachmann and her husband have taken efforts to make their honey farm into a safe-haven for butterflies, and last week, they attended an invitation to the Monarch Symposium at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
The two-day forum brought together conservation partners and scientists to share research and identify opportunities for new efforts.
The Zachmanns’ Jackass Honey Farms was one of more than 215 attendees to the event, which was hosted by Texan by Nature, a non-profit, community-oriented conservation group founded by former First Lady Laura Bush.
The organization recently declared the Zachmanns as “Monarch Wranglers,” making them part of a statewide initiative among Texas employers and organizations to cultivate native plants that help butterflies, removing invasive species, and tagging or tracking monarchs.
The monarch butterfly population has seen “significant declines between 80 and 90 percent in recent decades,” says Wendy Caldwell, a researcher associated with the Monarch Joint Venture. “Conservation efforts need to scale up as well.”
She said scientists estimate that, for a minimum viable population size, the amount of butterflies reported last year would need to be doubled. Such an increase would require an estimated 1.8 billion more milkweed plants, she said.
Texas and Oklahoma in particular feature as “extremely important” to monarch preservation efforts.
The habitat range for butterflies in North America stretches northward into Canada, but all undergo a exhaustive migration to Central Mexico for winter.
In the Fall, when the butterflies are flying south, they funnel through Texas and Oklahoma. There, the availability of nectar in Texas becomes critical for building up their fat reserves for the winter.
In the spring, when the butterflies are returning northward, Texas milkweeds become prime real estate for the butterflies to lay their eggs. It’s the only plant that caterpillars can eat, and so without milkweed, butterflies cannot survive.
Caldwell added that often, it’s the offspring from these Texas milkweeds that complete the journey northward. A lack of habitat in Texas then “has implications for the rest of the larger population.”
The growth of an additional 1.8 billion milkweed is possible, she said, “but we need all hands on deck. We need every sector creating habitats for pollinators.”
Caldwell said her organization—a national partnership of government agencies, non-governmental organizations and academic programs—is always seeking diverse partners with a stake in the land.
Honey farms in particular make for natural candidates, she said, because bees and butterflies use the same kind of habitat.
The Zachmanns’ efforts to make their expansive honey farm, deep in the country to the south of Liberty Hill, into an ideal habitat for the monarchs has already yielded results.
It began last year when they planted Gregg’s Mist Flower, a plant that is a good source of nectar for bees, but also is known as a magnet for butterflies.
Zachmann said that before, she had almost never seen butterflies on the property. “Now there are 30 butterflies on that bush at any given time.”
The Zachmanns will continue to plant milkweed and other high-nectar flowers into next year, she said, but last week, they attended Texan by Nature’s symposium to learn more about ways to raise awareness.
The event was invitation-only due to the Secret Service protection of former First Lady Laura Bush.
The night before the event’s first day, Zachmann said she slept less than five minutes.
“I kept running through all these questions I had about the monarch butterflies,” she said.
Zachmann had made the former First Lady a decorated tile, “kind of like a bathroom tile but different,” featuring a painting of a monarch butterfly. For the tile to reach the former First Lady, Zachmann had to give it to an assistant.
“I would’ve loved nothing more than to give her honey,” she said, “but the Secret Service is very protective of any food given to her.”
The Zachmanns received their official papers for their designation as “Monarch Wranglers,” signed by the former First Lady, nearly a month before they attended the symposium.
The distinction puts them in a league along with other major Austin-area partners.
Military defense company BAE Systems has pledged to plant pollinator gardens and restore native plants and grasses on their campus. DELL has made a similar promise for a 38-acre property of their own.
Part of the Zachmanns’ designation involves a three-year commitment to participate in a multinational program that tracks and records butterfly population numbers.
They will be documenting when they first see the butterflies, how many they see, how many eggs were laid, how many caterpillars hatched, what flowers the monarchs visit, and more. The process also involves catching butterflies and tagging them with a small sticker underneath a wing.
The information will be shared with Texan by Nature as well as the “Journey North,” a network that monitors individual butterflies as they migrate across the continent.
The stickers allow the Zachmanns to log into the network and see butterflies they observed as they continue the journey southward this fall. The program operates throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Zachmann said that potential “Monarch Wranglers” include large land owners, but it’s also possible with far less land. In fact, she said there are some people that do it with the potted plants on their apartment balcony.
One woman she met at the Symposium, representing the San Antonio Zoo, had tagged over 1,000 monarch butterflies.
When tagging begins at their own farm this August, Zachmann said she would like to primarily recruit children as volunteers to help them catch the butterflies.
Relatedly, she said she was interested in the idea of working with the schools in the area to establish butterfly gardens on their campuses.
These efforts could not only help raise awareness of the issue among children, Zachmann said, but there’s another important reason.
“I can tell you right now that there are not a lot of kids out there that can say they’ve tagged a monarch,” she said.