Monarch project aims to increase butterfly population

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By Rachel Madison

When Jodi McCumber went to a Monarch Symposium run by former first lady Laura Bush last year, she thought she was going to learn more about the best types of flowers for her honeybees at Jackass Honey Farms in Liberty Hill. She didn’t realize she’d find another passion in monarch butterflies.

But after learning that the monarch butterfly population has declined over 90 percent in the last 20 years, she knew she had to do something to help reverse that trend. That’s when the Jackass Monarch Butterfly Project was born.

“I have a friend who invited me to the Monarch Symposium with Laura Bush, and they covered everything,” she said. “We had like 32 scientists from all over the United States there to speak on the monarchs, and it was really cool. It correlated for me because everyone says honeybees are dying off and if they do we won’t have vegetables and fruits anymore, which is true, but they started talking about how the monarch butterfly population has declined 90 percent, and I thought ‘why is there not more awareness?’ The honeybee decline was caught so far in advance that I don’t think we’ll have that issue, but with the monarchs it’s like nobody caught it.”

McCumber added that scientists haven’t quite figured out why the population has declined so rapidly, but she has her own theories.

“Milkweed is the only plant monarch caterpillars eat and the only plant they lay their eggs on,” she said. “Twenty years ago milkweed was all over Texas, but we’re starting to see a decline in milkweed. Farmers hate it because when they have fields of hay and they start baling it, the milkweed is turned up. If you break a milkweed plant, it’s sticky and wet. Farmers usually bale the hay when it’s dry. If milkweed gets wrapped up in the hay it gets wet and starts molding and rotting.

The farmers want to get rid of it, but then the monarchs don’t have the food they need.”

That’s one reason why McCumber has planted two monarch waystations in her front yard at Jackass Honey Farms. A waystation is a place that provides resources necessary for monarchs to produce successive generations and sustain their migration.

Each waystation has several milkweed plants, Gregg’s mist, butterfly bush and verbena planted in it, and they are both certified through Monarch Watch, which is a nonprofit education, conservation and research program based at the University of Kansas that focuses on the monarch butterfly. At monarchwatch.org, there is a map to see every waystation in the United States, McCumber said.

Next year, McCumber plans on clearing out another area of her yard to create a third monarch waystation. She’s already applied for 200 milkweed plants and plans on designating a large area of her yard to pollinators, which means they won’t be mowing it.

This year, between the two waystations, the McCumbers were able to collect 21 monarch caterpillars and raise them into butterflies.

“This is the first year we’ve raised the caterpillars,” McCumber said. “We collected them all in a mesh container and put some milkweed in there with them and went to bed. The next morning there was nothing in there other than caterpillars. They had eaten all of it and doubled in size overnight. I cut some more milkweed and two hours later it was completely gone.”

One by one, the caterpillars started spinning their chrysalises inside the mesh container, and eventually emerged as butterflies. McCumber then fed them sugar water through the top of the container. On Tuesday, McCumber, along with her 9-year-old son, Bradley, released all but three of the butterflies, which hadn’t emerged from their chrysalises yet.

“Before this, I had never seen a butterfly actually emerge,” McCumber said. “I saw a little jump in the chrysalis and starting yelling for Bradley to come look. I dropped my phone three times when I was taking video of it because I was so excited. There are very few people who have ever gotten to see something like that.”

Because of this, McCumber hopes to start some outreach with groups like boy scouts, girl scouts and home-schooled children next year to teach them about monarch butterflies and their life cycle.

“I would love for them to be able to come out and have the kids collect the caterpillars and take them home so they can see how the life cycle runs, and then invite everyone back here to release the butterflies,” she said. “I also want to dig up milkweed plants that we have [in our yard] and send them each home with a milkweed plant.”

She also hopes to be able to teach kids and parents about how to create their own monarch butterfly gardens at home.

“I think a big problem with today’s generation is that too many kids are playing video games and watching TV and not being outdoors,” she said. “I’m excited about getting that chance to get kids back out into nature.”

The end of October is the end of the monarch season in Texas. The butterflies typically begin their migration to Mexico during this time, and the following spring they make their way back to Canada.

“All monarchs come through Texas on their migration to Canada and then back to Mexico,” McCumber said. “Their life span is like five generations, so it’s the generations that make that flight, not just one monarch.”

Last year, the McCumbers caught and tagged each butterfly they found in their yard so they could get reports back on how many of their butterflies made it to Mexico. Because Jodi’s husband, James, was in a life-threatening car accident this fall, they did not tag their butterflies this year. They plan on tagging them again next year.

“The purpose of tagging the butterflies is to see how far they go,” said Bradley McCumber. “If we get a phone call back we will be able to determine their location and know how far they flew.”

Jodi McCumber said the tag numbers are reported to Monarch Watch, which is how the butterflies are tracked during their migration.

To learn more about McCumber’s butterfly project, search for Jackass Monarch Butterfly Project on Facebook.

Rachel@LHIndependent.com

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