Kindergartners gathered last Saturday in New Paltz to say one final goodbye to their monarch butterfly friends, and to wish them well on their long journey to Mexico. The insects had hatched on milkweed saved from mowing along the River-to-Ridge trail, collected as caterpillars and allowed to pupate under the watchful eye of Duzine students. Teacher Rebecca Burdett and environmental educator Betty Boomer worked with leaders of the Open Space Institute (OSI) to ensure the milkweed, critical for monarch breeding, was allowed to flourish during the key breeding and feeding time. The message of “don’t cut the milkweed” was central to the release party, which occurred in conjunction with the first anniversary of the trail itself and opening of its final loop into the Mohonk Preserve.
The adults in attendance may have had more to learn about the monarch than the youngsters, who study them for six weeks at the beginning of the school year in New Paltz. Milkweed, a tall plant with broad leaves that flowers in summertime, is the only place monarch butterflies lay their eggs. They’ll gladly eat nectar from any flower they find, sucking it down greedily through a proboscis, but milkweed is their nursery. The butterflies hatched now, called “super monarchs,” won’t breed unless they survive the winter. Instead, they will be undertaking the mind-boggling migration to Mexico that is the hallmark of the species. Conversely, it takes three generations of butterflies to make it back to their northern haunts.
This is the second year Duzine students have released the butterflies, and several first-graders joined them for the festivities. They displayed advocacy posters with phrases such as, “Don’t cut down the milkweed, because all the butterflies will be dead and not be alive again.” The plant is mowed by farmers and landscapers and others who don’t recognize its value to this indicator species, but when Burdett approached OSI leaders, they quickly agreed to have the farmer renting the adjacent fields avoid mowing during the peak chrysalis months of the summer.
Burdett called this a “particularly amazing year for monarchs;” her class alone released 96 and had some more they hoped would emerge. The later they are born, presumably the harder it is to reach Mexico; they can fly about a hundred miles between feedings, according to Boomer, and will likely starve if they can’t find flowers in season. There are still many unanswered questions about these insects with distinctive orange wings. It wasn’t until 1975 that the location of a Mexican roosting site was identified, thanks to the pioneering work of researcher Fred Urquhart, who had started tagging the creatures decades earlier. According to Burdett, it was through a tag placed by a child that the length of the butterfly migration was first understood. The teacher carefully tagged each of her class’s butterflies before it was released, attaching a small sticker to the underside of a wing where it won’t interfere with flight. In Mexico, workers are paid five dollars for each butterfly with a tag that they retrieve from among the dead in the springtime.
Arriving as they do near the end of October, monarch butterflies are woven into Day of the Dead celebrations, Burdett said; they are seen as ancestral spirits returning home. The characteristics of over-wintering sites to which the butterflies are traveling include trees to protect the roosting butterflies from predators during their hibernation, plenty of water to drink and an absence of frost.
Boomer and Burdett each offered a piece of simple advice to support the species. Burdett’s message, echoed by her students and exemplified in her behavior, is to let milkweed be until Halloween. As she worked with the farmer overseeing OSI land, she hopes other farmers are open to managing their mowing around this concern. Boomer added that the butterfly bush is not the monarch’s friend. “It’s not a native species, and it confuses them,” she said. The pair gave away milkweed seeds, small brown pellets attached to the wispy tendrils on which they take flight, to get the proper plant out into the world. In recent years milkweed has also been distributed by the butterfly king and queen during Sinterklaas festivities in Kingston. The seeds must lie dormant in the cold — through the winter or in a refrigerator — before they will germinate.
As for “these five-year-old citizen scientists,” as their teacher described them, several were more than happy to weigh in when asked about monarchs.
“Don’t smush them,” said Jackie, who went on to explain the importance of collaborating with farmers to preserve the juveniles hidden in the fields.
Violet agreed, observing the cocoons and eggs are difficult to spot for adult eyes and that avoidance is the safer course of action. Nicky, for his part, expounded on the care he and his classmates provided the caterpillars to encourage the transformation into the iconic butterfly.
It’s impossible to say if the descendants of the monarchs born in New Paltz will return precisely here, but if they are indeed spirits of ancestors, perhaps they will recall the smiling children who sang songs of farewell to them and come back seeking more of the same.