Defending nature from its biggest destroyer, one monarch butterfly at a time [Editorial]

Like all natural things, humans can be friends or foes of the monarch butterfly, often both.
Like all natural things, humans can be friends or foes of the monarch butterfly, often both. (ALLAN VOUGHT | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

Mankind may be nature's biggest destroyer, but it can also be a defender.

Last Friday's article in print and online by Aegis staff member David Anderson shared some local stories about efforts to nurture the monarch butterfly.


Like other insect pollinators, who face threats from habitat destruction and disease, honeybees, for instance, monarch butterflies are important to our own well-being, even if we might not think in those terms when we see them in the wild. If you are into home vegetable gardening, you know what an effort it has become to attract bees and other pollinating insects, whose numbers aren't what they used to be.

Milkweed, usually found in vacant, open areas, is important to the breeding cycle of the monarch as it travels south to winter hibernation areas in Mexico.

Take a close look at milkweed leaves, and you'll find monarch butterfly eggs and caterpillars fattening themselves as they prepare to change into monarch butterflies. The milkweed is a vital food source and breeding location for the pollinators as they make their annual migration to Mexico.

Lisa Nowakowski, of Bel Air, a self-taught entomologist and the operator of the Lisa's Enviroshows environmental education programs, works to protect monarch breeding habitat locally.

"If we don't have enough clean milkweed, we're going to lose this species," she said recently, as she walked through a field off of Route 22 and Toy Drive in Churchville that was teeming with recently hatched monarch caterpillars that will become butterflies and then head south. The lot where she spoke had a "for sale" sign on it.

Monarchs are under threat from global climate change, logging in their winter forests and loss of food sources in the U.S. and Canada, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which considers the species "near threatened."

Monarchs are also at greater risk for deadly diseases, if too many larvae occupy one milkweed leaf, according to Nowakowski, who said only one female should lay eggs on each leaf.

"That's why it's so important to preserve the milkweed," she said. "It's the only thing they're going to lay eggs on."

At Eden Mill Nature Center in northern Harford, volunteers have been monitoring the butterflies and this year are tagging some to follow their migrations. They created a monarch habitat in a small area where visitors can see eggs, caterpillars, chrysalis and butterflies, the full life cycle.

Center director Frank Marsden encourages home gardeners to plant milkweed around their properties, farmers to do so along their fields and highways departments in medians and on roadsides.

Eden Mill established a wood duck nesting box and monitoring program that has taken off, if you'll pardon the pun. Marsden would like to get a small group of volunteers together to work with monarchs in a similar way.

"That's the best way to create stewardship of the environment, to have folks involved in it and to understand it," Marsden said.

Those are words well spoken – and to live by.