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The flight of the monarch builds bridges of communication

September 22, 2017
By BARBARA C. BARRETT , The Luminary

TURBOTVILLE - Chasing butterflies can be fun, but the monarch butterfly is one of nature's wonders and one to watch closely according to Deb Steransky of Muncy. On Sunday, Steransky who is a Master Gardener and a Pennsylvania Naturalist trainee explained how these small, fragile insects start to migrate all the way to Mexico from here every autumn.

Speaking at Montour Preserve in Turbotville on Sunday afternoon, Steransky informed that she is a "long time tree hugger" and recently started with butterfly gardening.

"I like to fish, watch nature and be outside," she said, "and am happy to share what I know." Using some photos and charts, Steransky explained the life cycle of the Monarch Butterfly. As a member of the Central Susquehanna Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, she explained how everyone there is keeping a close watch on this fragile insect because it is starting to become extinct.

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Deb Steransky of Muncy, explained the life cycle of the monarch butterfly on Sunday, Sept. 10 at the Montour Preserve. While holding a milkweed branch, she explained how critical the plant is for the survival of the monarch. Without it, they cannot complete their life cycle and their population is declining due to the overuse of pesticides.

They feed on milkweed which is a native of Pennsylvania. However due to the overuse of insecticides, the milkweed is disappearing and affecting the monarch butterfly population.

"Now is the time to watch them and look for them," Steransky explained. The offspring will lay a single egg under a milkweed leaf. It will hatch there, lose its shell, then begin to eat the leaf. "It will grow in size up to 2,000 times," she explained, "and can strip a milkweed in no time."

During their metamorphosis, they will seek out a sheltered place, turn themselves upside down and spin themselves inside a silk button, which will be shed. They will stay like this in the "chrysalis" stage for about two weeks before developing wings and emerging as an adult butterfly. "This transition is always a marvel to me," Steransky said.

Along with the monarch there are 12 other species of butterflies that migrate plus many dragonflies.

A male monarch can be identified by two small black dots on the bottom of their wings. This was discovered when a scientist, Dr. Fred Urquhart, started tagging them. According to Steransky, results of the findings were published in 1976 in National Geographic Magazine titled "The Flight of the Butterflies." The research began in 1940 and it took about 30 years to find out that monarchs migrate from one location to another. Data found from tagging them revealed that a monarch has traveled from Minnesota all the way to Mexico. Pathways were uncovered that determined their survival rate and how far they could actually migrate. Data is still being explored as the monarch has a fascinating biology.

Every year starting in mid August and mid September monarchs in the northern region, including Canada, begin to migrate south. Besides milkweed, they are attracted to sunflowers, wild asters, Joe Pye weed, butterfly bushes and goldenrod.

This year is the 21st annual "Symbolic Monarch Butterfly Migration" across North America. Breeding begins in March and every two weeks a new generation is formed, migrating from Southern Canada to Northern Mexico. "A chemical change takes place in their reproductive system before they take a 3,000 mile flight to Mexico for the winter." There is a population of them that seem to spend some time in Southern Florida.

"They go through Cape May for a count," Steransky said, "before they go further south." Once in Mexico they cover an area of 200 square miles because the micro climate there offers them some protection from the cold.

Steransky showed a photo of them sitting on top of a volcanic mountain 10,000 feet high in Mexico. "There is enough moisture and fog to protect them." They usually arrive there in late October and their arrival is called "The Day of the Dead" because it turns into a big celebration for departed ancestors. Steransky added, "Sometimes their gatherings are so thick, they break the branches."

In late winter they mate, look for food and water, and begin the journey all over again.

However, their population has been declining since the early 80s. In 2013 a low count was reported, probably due to numerous ice storms that year. The monarch is still under file for legal protection, and still in review as an endangered species. "They are part of the Round-up ready corn. Everything dies including the milkweed and the butterflies," informed Steransky. "The milkweed protects them."

As a conservationist, Steransky stressed the importance of growing the milkweed. She brought in a plant for audience members to take the seed pods from and to take them, and plant them somewhere safe. "It is easy to grow," she said, "and it also attracts moths, hummingbirds and nectar seeking bees." The plant will blossom with purple flowers in late summer. She suggests planting milkweed in the back part of the home garden or on property edges.

There is a Monarch Joint Venture Watch that is helping the monarch survive and a movement to create sanctuaries in some of the larger cities and in Mexico. Children protect them and send them north in the spring.

As a former fifth grade teacher, Steransky explained how the monarch migration is building bridges of communication among students in Mexico, the United States and Canada.



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