Dear Dot: How can I help the monarch butterflies in my backyard?

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Dot tackles your thorniest questions from a perch on her porch.

Dear Dot,

I was told that monarch butterfly cocoons were developing in the bottlebrush near my house, but this year there were fewer than last year. I’ve ordered bottlebrush plants to see if I can make a home for them. What can Vineyarders do to make the Island more habitable to the monarch?

–Long Live the Monarch, West Tisbury

Dear LLTM,

When I was a barefoot child whose summer days were spent mucking about in ponds and lakes, monarchs were so ubiquitous that they were the “ordinary” butterflies, barely evoking attention. But monarchs are having a moment, in large part due to news of their plunging population. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the Eastern monarch butterfly population took a more than 50 percent dive in the 2020 overwintering count performed by World Wildlife Fund Mexico. Like many of us, monarchs make their way to Mexico for the winter, though their route involves traveling up to 3,000 miles from Canada or the Northeastern U.S., a journey that a recent New Yorker article referred to as “the most evolutionarily advanced migration of any known butterfly, perhaps of any known insect.” How could I — how could any of us! — ever have dismissed the monarch as ordinary? 

Scientists aren’t sure exactly what to blame for the monarch’s declining numbers, but point to the 71 percent reduction in milkweed plants (that’s 850 million plants in the U.S., largely killed by Roundup, according to Scientific American) on which these butterflies exclusively lay their eggs. Other culprits include climate change and, in Mexico, habitat destruction. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, monarchs are in distress.

How could I — how could any of us! — ever have dismissed the monarch as ordinary?

Matt Pelikan, an Oak Bluffs-based naturalist whom many of you know as the “Wild Side” columnist for The MV Times, has managed to make his own small yard a butterfly utopia, and suggests ways we all can do the same. For a start, he says, “Lose the bottlebrush and instead plant native milkweeds, which is the only thing monarch caterpillars like to eat.” And then add asters and native goldenrods — in particular, seaside goldenrod — to support the migrants during their fall trip to the South. When it gets cold in the fall, monarchs will need open areas where they can sit in full sun and feed on the milkweed, goldenrods, and asters before their epic trip.

Pelikan has attracted not just monarchs, but has counted 35 species of butterflies in his own yard, and about 70 species elsewhere on the Vineyard. He used to organize a July 4 butterfly count on the Island, but couldn’t muster up enough enthusiasm from other Islanders. So, he says, if someone else wants to take up the mantle …

Love, Dot 

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