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  • Andy Davis

The five stages of a monarch butterfly advocate

Hello everyone,

Today's blog post will be short but informative - hopefully! In the years since I've been writing this blog, I've had many people tell me how they first got into monarchs, and then how their own activities around monarchs have changed over time, as they have gained in knowledge. Sometimes this is because they have learned from this blog, although I suspect that anyone who is inherently thirsty for knowledge gets their information from multiple sources. Anyway, over time, I began to see how similar many of these stories are - people usually start out the same way, and then they seem to advance in the same manner too. And, they usually end up at the same place. So today, I thought it might be useful to encapsulate these stories in the following "list" if you will, that documents how people's activities around monarch typically change over time. You could also call this the "evolution of the monarch advocate" I guess. Anyway, I think this list should be helpful for people who are currently on this journey, to see where they stand, and maybe see how far they need to go, and what they should do to get there.

I'm going to call these various iterations "stages", with the idea that people usually start with the earlier stages and progress through.

Stage 1 - Helping

This is where EVERYONE starts, and it usually begins with wanting to help the monarch population, or perhaps just wanting to help a few monarchs in your yard. At the time you began your own journey, you may have heard a news story or two about how monarchs are in trouble, and that article said it is up to homeowners to do something about this (which is not really the case - see the last blog). Or, you may have bought a milkweed plant on a whim, planted it in your yard, and then found some "helpless" caterpillars on it the next summer. It is completely understandable why everyone starts off right here - everyone wants to help these beautiful creatures!

This desire to help nearly always leads to the next step - you decide to bring those baby caterpillars inside, to help them, and to help the struggling monarch population. So you put them in a container with some milkweed, and bring them to your kitchen table so you can look after them, and keep the predators from getting them. Perhaps you thought this would be a good activity to pass the time during the pandemic, or maybe you wanted to show the grandkids, or the neighbor's kids, some caterpillars. It really is fun to play with these squiggly creatures (I know this myself), and then when they become butterflies and you let them go, it's like magic! And it feels so good too - it feels like you are helping. And from a simple mathematical standpoint, those few butterflies were just added to the population all because of you.

Stage 2 - You ramp things up

The next stage seems to happen with everyone to varying degrees. Basically, after you release those first few butterflies and get all the good feels, you figure that if a little is good, a lot is better. So, you decide to ramp up your caterpillar helping efforts, by purchasing better rearing equipment, containers, etc., so that you can house and rear even more monarch caterpillars. You had seen some caterpillars down the street on a milkweed plant one day, so you decide to collect these, in addition to the ones you have on your backyard milkweed. You have begun to "harvest" caterpillars. You may also realize that all of these caterpillars eat a heck of a lot of milkweed, and so you make sure to plant lots in your backyard, mostly for you to harvest. Pretty soon, you have a dozen containers in your house, all filled with dozens of caterpillars each, and you are spending hours a day keeping everyone fed, and the containers cleaned. You have become a butterfly-mill.

This seems like a small price to pay, because you are helping the population so much, by adding so many butterflies. Also, you have seen other people in your facebook groups who claim to rear hundreds of butterflies each year!

Stage 3 - You build a butterfly garden

This stage comes at different times for everyone, but at some point you realize that releasing butterflies is not enough, because they all need to have some habitat. Or, you decide to scale back your indoor rearing operation because it got too cumbersome. Or maybe you simply want to improve/renovate your milkweed-harvesting area, and make it suitable for many other butterflies (you heard that other species are in trouble too). Or, you really like it when your released monarchs hang around your yard and nectar from your flowers. So, after reading up on this, and after making careful design plans, you turn a portion of your yard into a "butterfly garden."

This step here is laudable, although here is where things can go awry too. Not long after your butterfly garden is "open for business" and you start seeing caterpillars (yay!), you also discover that wasps have been hanging around, looking for their next meal, which is usually caterpillars. You may have even seen one of "your" caterpillars being taken away by one of these meanies. Horrified, you grab your spray can of raid and take care of business. The same thing happens when you see stinkbugs sucking the life out of one of "your" caterpillars. You quickly realize that is a bug-eat-bug world out there, and (still horrified), you decide to resume your indoor-rearing operation. Or, you try your best to cover the outdoor caterpillars with mesh to keep them alive for as long as you can.

Not only do people in this stage go out of their way to protect the monarch caterpillars, but they also can take great pains to protect the milkweed from anything that isn't a monarch! That means, all milkweed bugs, beetles, aphids, or other critter that dares use the "monarchs-only" milkweed must be eliminated!

Stage 4 - Science denial

This step also comes at different times for everyone but I'm going to put it here, because it often comes after all of the aforementioned work has gone into helping the monarchs. At some point you hear about a scientific study that was done that somehow proves that captive-reared monarchs can't migrate, and that people shouldn't be doing this anymore. How can this be? You saw that one of your facebook friends had tagged one of their reared monarchs, and that tagged butterfly was found in Mexico! So you figure the scientists must be wrong! You also heard that there is a parasite that is spreading in the monarch population, and that captive-rearing may be exacerbating this. This too must be wrong, because everyone you know who rears monarchs always keeps their operation very clean. Or how about the latest doozy - some scientist thinks that the monarch breeding population is doing fine - what does he know anyway?

Not only are the scientists wrong, you reason, but everyone on your facebook group says so too. Even the facebook admins think the scientists shouldn't be trusted! In fact, you yourself even go out of your way on facebook to downplay these studies, or point out their many flaws, so that none of their conclusions need to be followed. Surely, you know how to read and interpret a scientific study! You just "know" that these scientists are wrong, and that your facebook group is clearly helping. Period. End of story.

Stage 5 - A lightbulb goes off

I'm not sure what it is that triggers this, but the (advanced) stages of a monarch advocate nearly always progress to a point where the person realizes that they had been going about it all wrong. After reading up on this (a lot), you begin to realize the scientists were not wrong after all. There really is research showing how captive-rearing is harming the population, and it is not flawed. And, you realize that killing all of the monarch predators is not the way to promote nature in your garden. In fact, it turns out that not every monarch caterpillar is supposed to live, but they are even designed by mother nature to be eaten. And finally, you realize (to your horror) that your mass-rearing operation was probably helping to spread the monarch parasite even further. In your haste to help, you were actually making things worse.

Sometimes this stage comes to people on their own, sometimes it comes when they talk with another person at stage 5.

Once someone gets to this point, they typically begin a new phase of "helping" the monarchs. This involves advocating for people to stop rearing caterpillars, and educating others on the risks of this practice. It comes with promoting a new form of butterrfly gardening, which is to let nature take its course. People in this advanced stage also tend to be advocates for science, and they point out to others how we shouldn't be interfering as much as we are.

I'll put in another thought or observation of people in stage 5, because they all tell me the same thing: they are much less stressed. When they were in stage 2, they would worry everyday about their monarch babies, and keeping the rearing operation going was quite stressful. Then, seeing their outdoor babies getting carried off by a wasp was also horrifying. But, once this lightbulb goes off, it becomes a different story. Knowing that wasps are not the enemy (and even better pollinators than monarchs) is a big game-changer. Knowing that monarch caterpillars are supposed to be eaten takes the horror away. Pretty soon, people begin to see their "butterfly gardens" as not a "butterflies only" space, but a place where all nature is welcome, even wasps.

In the end, people at this most advanced stage usually understand that the best thing we can do to help monarchs is to promote a natural environment and/or garden space, and provide a place to let nature (including monarchs) be.

OK, so these are the five stages of a monarch advocate, based on my observations of many people over the years, along with some knowledge of the science around monarchs. I'm sure arguments could be made about the order of these stages, or even if there are more. This list certainly isn't set in stone. Think of these stages more as guidelines I guess, for how best to go about helping the monarchs. For example, if you are clearly in stage 1 or 2, you probably aren't helping as much as you think you are, and, you probably need to do some reading. And, if other people in your facebook groups are telling you that you are helping with these activities, then they too are still in these early stages, or more likely, stage 4 (science denial). Their lightbulb has not yet gone off.

Feel free to pass this around and start a discussion.



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The science of monarch butterflies

A blog about monarchs, written by a monarch scientist, for people who love monarchs

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