On this busy Wednesday, I headed out to the Effie Yeaw Nature Preserve (EYNP) around 5:00 pm for their Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (MLMP) training. When I drove in, I saw one of the big 4-pointer bucks, still in his velvet, sitting in the shade under the trees on the golf course. The wet grass must’ve felt good on his belly. (It was about 93° outside then.)
Along the walkway, the Wavy-Leaf Soap Plants were in bloom, white spidery flowers everywhere. The plants only bloom in the evening, starting at dusk and continuing through the night. By morning, they’re done. They close up and die off… so getting to see them fully open is a bit of a treat.
The training was led by a volunteer, Krystin Dozier, who’s been helping to monitor the butterflies since she took the naturalist course at Effie Yeaw in 2015.
The monitoring project is a “Citizen Science” effort coordinated through the University of Minnesota in which everyday folks help to monitor milkweed plants in specified areas and keep track of Monarch eggs and caterpillars. About 5 people showed up for the training (all women, no men) and Rachel Cowen the EYNP Volunteer Coordinator was there, too. After a brief presentation, we went outside to look at the Showy Milkweed plants near the nature center and were assigned plots, which we’ll monitor through the month of July (or longer if we want to).
While we were looking at the plants I was able to identify some errant insects that were on them for the group (like a Long-jawed Orb Weaver Spider and a katydid nymph), and I offered to be of assistance to the other people in the group if they needed help with ID-ing plants and insects. Rachel told them I was their “local nature geek”. Hah! (Three of the women stopped me after the meeting and asked for my email address so they could contact me if they needed to.)
I asked for Plot 1A in the grounds because it knew it got shade most of the time which I figured would benefit me if I’m monitoring the plants there in the heat of the summer.
Basically, you count all of the milkweed plants in your plot and then look over every part of each plant looking for butterfly eggs and caterpillars. If you find anything, you note it in your weekly report and tie a yellow ribbon (piece of yarn, pipe cleaner) to the plant to mark it. Whenever caterpillars in their 4th or 5th instar are found, you let everyone know so the Effie Yeaw staff can collect them and rear them from that stage through the butterfly stage, so they can make sure the butterflies live, and can tag them for migration monitoring.
Eastern Monarch populations seem to be doing fairly well, but the Western Monarchs (those populations west of the Rockies) are in a severe decline; about a 90%+ loss in just one year. At first everyone thought it was due to habitat degradation and a loss of milkweed plants, but the plant populations haven’t declined much, so that had been ruled out as an overriding factor. Now, the theory is that the Western Monarchs are being affected by a fungal infection (from plants in Mexico), so another aspect of the study is to test the butterflies for that fungus. We plant monitors won’t be doing that piece, but I think it’s all very fascinating.
I’m slated to work on my plot on Tuesday mornings at 6:00 am starting in July.