The Butterfly Effect

Written by Teresa Hagan

 

After declining ninety percent in the last twenty years, the monarchs—thanks to Judith and Bill Jobson—are 

coming back to Long Beach Island!

You can never tell when inspiration might strike. For Isaac Newton, it hit—quite literally—when an apple bonked him on the head. Archimedes’ “Eureka” moment came while easing himself into the bath. And a moving train led Einstein to theorize, “What if E=mc2?” 

 

For Judith (Johnson) Jobson,  that “aha” moment came in 2012 as she lounged in a hammock on LBI. Looking up, Judith was awed by the spectacle of migrating monarchs, orange and black beauties silhouetted against a tranquil Beach Haven sky. That’s when she knew it was her mission to create a safe habitat and spread the word about their dwindling numbers.

 

 

No stranger to monarchs, Judith had been a fan since 2000 when she taught art, humanities, and women’s studies at Harrisburg Area Community College. “One day a colleague, who had just returned from studying at Duke University, shared something pretty amazing,”  she explains. “He had an MRI of a chrysalis, the hard protective case that shelters the pupa in its final stage of metamorphosis. I was hooked and began painting monarchs.”

 

Within a year painting progressed to raising, and Judith’s one-acre Lancaster, Pennsylvania, property turned into a tent city of sorts. “I had a mating tent, an egg tent, a maternity tent, and a nursery tent. There was even a long butterfly tent shaped and painted to look like a caterpillar.”  

 

With such impressive digs and Judith’s self-taught TLC, success was inevitable. Soon the sky was teeming with monarchs. People couldn’t help but notice and a trickle of visitors turned into hundreds. “One man in a wheelchair had to be carried over a bridge,” remembers Judith.  “It brought tears to my eyes.”  Before long, she began lecturing and sharing her larvae with schools, Scout troops, and just about anyone who wanted to try their hand at caterpillar wrangling. But, between that early Lancaster success and Judith’s arrival on LBI, a lot changed—for better and worse: Judith met Beach Haven resident Bill Jobson on a seniors dating site and they eventually married. During that same period, however, the magnificent and mysterious butterflies she had been raising and painting for more than ten years were disappearing. 

 

Climate change (freezing temperatures, heavy rains, hail, and high winds) has decimated the monarchs that over-winter in Mexico, killing as much as 80 percent of the population in some years. To put the devastation in perspective, in 2001, the year Judith started her Lancaster backyard habitat, the total area occupied by winter colonies in Mexico was 9.35 hectares (monarch numbers are measured in hectares, a hectare being equal to 100 acres with each acre containing between 10 and 50 million butterflies).  By the time of her hammock epiphany on LBI eleven years later, their winter grounds had dwindled to 1.19 hectares. 

 

“Summer and fall migrations also present threats,” explains Judith. “Land along monarch routes is being developed into housing or shopping centers. Consequently, the butterflies  are losing places to feed and rest during the two-month 3000-mile journey between their winter homes in Mexico and here.” Loss of habitat is so drastic, reports Monarch Watch, that the US has lost 147 million acres (four times the area of Illinois) since that organization was founded in 1992.

 

A third reason for the decline are the “cides,” meaning, literally “a killer of.”  The problem with pesticides and herbicides is they don’t discriminate. Beneficial bugs and pollinators, including butterflies, are killed by widespread pesticide spraying on commercial and family farms, public spaces, and home gardens. Weed-killing herbicides destroy everything green in their path, including milkweed, the only plant on which monarchs will lay their eggs and the only food source for their larvae. 

 

The situation has become—and remains—dire. Which is why Judith has dedicated herself to raising not only monarchs, but also awareness. Billed as “Caterpillar Mama,” she frequently lectures at local schools, churches, and community centers, covering such diverse subjects as habitat, migration, reproduction, and metamorphosis—the awe-inspiring transformation from pupa to butterfly. (See box on page  212.)

 

“The pupa is a waxy jade-green sac with gold trim,” explains Judith. “ Packed tightly inside, the caterpillar metamorphoses into an adult butterfly in about two weeks. Most monarchs will only live a few weeks. But the last generation born in late August will be the migratory generation. Shorter days and cooler temperatures in autumn prevent them from maturing enough to reproduce, but allows them to live for eight to nine months—long enough to fly south for the winter and back again to reproduce the following summer.”

 

Giving of her time and talent, Judith is also generous with her milkweed, supplying neighbors and friends with plants and seeds from her backyard breeding grounds, a smaller—but still impressive—version of her Lancaster gardens. Those who attend her talks take home a “butterfly garden in a bag”: a mix of milkweed, cosmos, and zinnia seeds that will soon provide nourishment for feeding monarchs and their offspring. Bill is just as busy behind the scenes: building, painting, and planting window boxes and barrels with milkweed and nectar flowers.

 

But as busy and successful as Judith and Bill are—they stopped counting after releasing more than 500 butterflies last year—the survival of the monarch depends on all of us. “At the very least, I would urge people to not use herbicides or pesticides,” says Judith.  “If pulling weeds is not your thing, douse them with boiling water or vinegar. They’ll be gone in a day or two. When it comes to pests, it’s best to remove them by hand or a mild spray of soapy water. Just make sure, there are no eggs or caterpillars on your plants when you do it.” 

 

If  you plan to plant milkweed, be sure to buy pesticide- and herbicide-free plants. The two perennials best suited to LBI are Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed) with its clustered orange flowers and Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed), known for its bright pink blooms. “For instant gratification,” says Judith, “I use tropical milkweed [Asclepias curassavica]. It’s a fast grower, but for it to survive the winter, you have to bring it inside. That’s really not a problem because it’s such a pretty plant.”

 

For those who want to go a step further and try their hand at actually raising monarchs, you can find everything you need to know on Judith’s blog (www.lbimonarchsmilkweed.com). Just don’t become too attached. “You do need to let them go,” warns Judith. “They are not pets.”

 

No, they’re not our pets, but we are their stewards.  And with a little labor and luck, we can bring them back—one monarch at a time—until the skies are as full as the day Judith lay in her hammock looking up.  A real-life LBI “Butterfly Effect!”

 

Raising Monarchs

 

If you plant it, they will come. Here’s what to look for on your milkweed plants.

 Stage 1: The Egg (3-4 days)

The tiny oval dot you see on the milkweed above left is actually a monarch egg. In three or four days, a baby caterpillar will start to chew its way through the egg. Once he pokes his head out, he’ll turn around and eat his shell, a vital source of nutrients. When that’s gone, the milkweed becomes his only source of food. Knowing that their offspring can’t travel far, mothers will lay their eggs only on the milkweed.

 

Stage 2: The Larva (10-14 days)

During this stage, the larva or caterpillar’s main job is to eat and eat and eat! As he grows from feasting on all your milkweed, he’ll shed—and eat!—his own skin five times.

 

Stage 3: The Pupa (10-14 days)

When the larva is finished growing, it forms a chrysalis, inside of which the transformation to monarch butterfly is completed.

 

Stage 4: Adult (2-5 weeks)

At this stage, the chrysalis bursts open and a beautiful monarch emerges. Adults live from two to five weeks and will mate repeatedly over their life-spans. The final generation of Eastern monarchs, which emerge in early fall, migrate to Central Mexico, where they over-winter, surviving up to nine months, until it’s time to fly north and start the cycle again.

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