Operation Monarch: Our First Year

October 1, 2021

As a commercial member of AZA, in 2020 WDM Architects learned the Monarch Butterfly had been identified as a SAFE species (Saving Animals From Extinction). We had a pow-wow and all agreed we wanted to do something. As our president at WDM, Matt Schindler says, “Who doesn’t like butterflies?”

We drafted a plan of action and went to work for Monarchs.

 

Action Step 1: Find milkweed plants.

It seemed simple enough at first, but a plant with weed in its name is not a popular item. None could be found in the big-box-store garden centers or even the seasonal roadside greenhouse vendors. Undeterred, we found a locally-owned feed and seed store that had live milkweed plants, and confirmed they had not been previously treated with pesticides. WDM bought their entire supply, but the 30-some plants were crawling with aphids.

Now what? We hosed them down as best we could and soldiered on. Butterflies were counting on us.

 

Action Step 2: Find project partners.

WDM principals reached out to their client contacts at city park departments, the zoo, the city’s botanical garden and others that might have an interest in saving Monarchs. We received many positive responses.

Botanica and the Sedgwick County Zoo both were happy to expand their existing Monarch programs with our involvement. The City of Derby accepted our donation of milkweed plants to put in a couple of city parks.

 

Action Step 3: Plant milkweed.

We polled our staff to see who had the room and inclination to plant milkweed in their own yards. Six of us signed up.

Derby Parks Department planted our milkweed in sunny areas which would be watered and grow without threat of mowing and pesticides.

The Sedgwick County Zoo’s staff offered up an unruly patch of Johnson grass next to the bison that could be converted into a pollinator garden, if we wanted to do the dirty work. Fourteen of us met at the zoo in June of 2021 for a grueling sweat-fest. The area was cleared and over the next 6 months, zoo staff seeded for a pollinator garden.

 

 

In June 2022, WDM principals and staff returned to the zoo to tend the garden and found the area in bloom! Non-nectar-producing plants were weeded out, and more flowers were added. Additionally, we will be designing interpretive signage to help raise public awareness about Monarchs.

 

Now what?

Nearing the end of our first year of Operation Monarch, we took stock of our progress. The pollinator garden at the zoo had nectar-producing flowers, but no visible milkweed.

Some of our home gardens with milkweed had expanded, and sadly, some had shrunk. It turns out, milkweed isn’t easy to grow. It takes a period of cold-stratification for the seeds to germinate, and even then, young plants seem to struggle once transplanted.  Once established, the story is, they will be giants among plants. However, our plants were not giants, our starter gardens seemed rather skimpy, and none of us had seen Monarch caterpillars on our plants. M-a-y-b-e we were a little discouraged. Maybe.

Then we connected with a local butterfly enthusiast who taught us what to look for on the plants. Astonishingly, there were eggs and caterpillars on our plants, we just weren’t looking small enough. Monarch eggs are roughly the size of a grain of salt. Yep, and Monarch mommies will only put an egg or two at a time on the underside of a milkweed leaf. To see them, you have to look carefully. A newly-hatched caterpillar starts out smaller than a grain of rice. That’s eye-strainingly small, folks.

Can you find the eggs?

 

 

Imagine our delight to find our first, tiny caterpillar! And our very next thought was: how will we protect it from the myriad of things that want to eat it? Very few Monarchs survive the whole process from eggs to become butterflies.

 

Monarch caterpillars go through 5 molts, or instars, before pupating. From left, the biggest is at the 4th instar, then third instar, second and first. This smallest caterpillar’s stripes are just barely discernable, and his head is black.

The Monarch caterpillar increases “2,000 times,” according to JOURNEY NORTH in the short 2 weeks it is a caterpillar. That means it mows through a lot of milkweed. And eating a lot, means it poops a lot. Caterpillar poop is actually called frass.

Monarch caterpillars hang upside down in a J-shape to prepare to pupate. It starts by tethering himself by spinning a silk mat and suspending itself hanging upside down in a J-shape. Over the next 24-hours, the skin is shed and the chrysalis is revealed, with discernable wing-like shapes inside.

 

Monarch chrysalis

 

The Monarch’s chrysalis becomes darker and translucent just before the butterfly emerges.

 

Then, 10-14-days later, a butterfly emerges, pumps fluid into the wings and takes flight.

 

 

This late in the season, this butterfly is one of the “super generation,” or Methuselah generation, of Monarchs that live longer to make the 3,000+-mile migration for overwintering in Mexico.

 

 

Operation Monarch Takeaways

  1. Overall, even a small garden with milkweed can provide a spot for Monarchs to reproduce. “Every garden starts small,” says our local expert. Working to provide an official waystation will take more time.
  2. Milkweed starter plants, indeed any native plants that support pollinators, songbirds and local wildlife, are difficult to source. We plan on starting more from seed to expand our Milkweed footprint. Native plants can be found for sale at Dyck Arboretum.
  3. WDM will be designing interpretive signage to be installed at the pollinator garden at the Sedgwick County Zoo to educate the public about the plight of the Monarchs and other pollinators.

We’re excited to have contributed in some small way to support this amazing species.

After all, mighty oaks from little acorns grow.