Ferndale Welcome Monarchs with Milkweed and Way Station

(Becky Hammond, Aug. 21, 2017)

Ferndale, MI – “I want another one!”

Day two of butterfly releases at the Ferndale Library during Children’s Hour, and a third monarch had just left the finger of one enchanted little girl, a butterfly raised in the library from an egg found on milkweed on library grounds.

The butterfly garden at the library was started in May of 2015 and has been slowly expanded since. But this is the first year we’ve found monarch eggs on library milkweed (39 so far), as well as being the first year we’ve raised butterflies right in the kids’ room.

The Ferndale/Michigan Monarch Project started as a whim tossed out on the Ferndale Forum facebook page, and at first response was lukewarm. Six months later I repeated the idea, suggesting we attempt to make Ferndale a monarch haven by planting as much milkweed as possible, and that second time it took off, with local residents like John Hardy lending enthusiasm and encouragement. Within two months the project was giving away plants and bits of advice as quickly as they could be dug up. No one involved is an expert, but this endeavor shows the power of the amateur.

Monarch numbers are down. Reduction of habitat here and in Mexico, where they spend winters, and pesticide use/farming practices all contribute. It’s possible that the species will be saved and numbers increased at least partly due to urban gardens. A butterfly garden that benefits monarchs can be as simple as a milkweed plant, a mid-season bloomer like coneflower, and something that blooms late, like goldenrod or asters, which provide nectar that they need for that long flight to Mexico. Why milkweed? Because while monarch butterflies will visit many types of flowers for nectar, milkweed is their only host plant. They lay eggs on milkweed, their caterpillars eat milkweed, and nothing else. Michigan has eleven different types. We’ve given away over 500 milkweed plants to local residents, schools, and houses of worship. Ferndale Free Methodist, Renaissance Vineyard, Jewish Ferndale, and Ferndale Lower Elementary, Scuola Creative on Livernois, and Kennedy School in Oak Park all have butterfly gardens.

Last year most of us in the area saw few monarchs and gathered and raised few eggs. It was a noticeable drop from the previous year. This year seemed doomed to the same depressing reality, until about July 20. Suddenly eggs were abundant. I found over 200 in a 10-day period, within a short walk from my house. And I started seeing monarch butterflies every day. One tiny plant in my yard had 12 eggs (a single egg per plant is more typical). Point Pelee’s experts told me, “Egg dumping! When she finally found a few plants she took advantage of it!”

Why gather eggs? Because the survival rate outside is low, maybe 3%. Inside, it’s at least 90%. Each phase of life has predators. I’ve seen a spider eating an egg. Ants and earwigs can eat eggs and tiny young caterpillars, and wasps can parasitize both caterpillars and chrysalides. Point Pelee’s facebook page is a daily running account of volunteers searching stands of milkweed and bringing eggs into their visitor’s center for protection. The process is easy. The caterpillars know what to do. You merely provide them with space to live and leaves to eat, and once you understand the time frames of development (Monarch Watch’s page “Rearing Monarchs” is invaluable), you enjoy watching the natural but miraculous-seeming process transpire.

Many of our page members are now finding monarch eggs outside for the first time after adopting some from the project. If you decide to search local milkweed, look under leaves for the tiny, white, pointed, ridged eggs.

What might a Project Wish List contain? We’d love to see more area libraries add butterfly gardens and involve kids, and more schools, churches, parks and city property add them as well. We’d love to see a native approach to gardening become the norm. The plants are tough, and even a small number makes a noticeable difference. Watching birds, bees, and butterflies visit flowers is more interesting than watching grass grow, and it takes less water and no chemicals. And we’d love to see far less mowing of milkweed along Michigan highways. Ohio and Illinois have both initiated milkweed-planting programs. In Michigan, we still mow it.

The Ferndale/Michigan Monarch Project is on facebook. Check out our sprawling butterfly garden on three sides of the Ferndale Area District Library. Visit soon, and you will see eggs, caterpillars, and maybe a chrysalis or butterfly in the children’s room. If you need milkweed plants, our page can provide them. And we adopt out eggs and caterpillars as we find them.