Self-proclaimed “science nerd” Betsy Burgeson has always taken an interest in monarch butterflies.
The supervisor of gardens and landscapes at Chautauqua Institution recalled collecting monarch caterpillars as a child and watching them grow. Unfortunately, her children have not been able to appreciate the unique insect to the extent she did, as monarch butterfly populations have declined by nearly 90 percent over the last 20 years.
“Last year was the first year we actually found the caterpillars and were able to watch them turn into chrysalises and butterflies,” she said. “It’s always been in my blood to keep them growing and have future generations see these same things.”
For this reason, Burgeson has teamed up with the Bird, Tree & Garden Club and the Jamestown Audubon Society to transform Chautauqua Institution into a monarch butterfly waystation — a place that provides resources for monarch butterflies to thrive, reproduce and migrate.
BTG announced the multi-year monarch waystation project Friday at its Life Member Luncheon. Jack and Diane Voelker, monarch enthusiasts who have been active at the Institution and with BTG for decades, discussed the plight of the monarchs and the details of the project during the luncheon.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the monarch is the only butterfly to migrate annually in the late summer from the U.S. and southern Canada all the way to Mexico. But the migration process is under threat, largely due to herbicide usage that kills the milkweed plants on which the larvae feed and pesticide usage, which harms or kills the insects directly.
Lynda Acker, a BTG board member and the club’s database manager, is the lead organizer for the monarch waystation project. She said it was partly inspired by an idea of Ryan Kiblin, the former supervisor of gardens and landscapes who died suddenly last summer.
“A dream of Ryan’s was to turn Chautauqua into a monarch waystation because the monarchs are in trouble,” Acker said. “They’re not endangered yet, but the easterly migration route is in trouble because of many factors — pesticides, development, etc. Ryan saw this community as an opportunity to establish a habitat for them as they journey to and from Mexico.”
The waystations will contain varieties of milkweed, which is the only plant monarch butterfly larvae feed on, and nectar plants for the adult butterflies. Burgeson estimated they will be scattered throughout the grounds by the beginning of next season.
“We can’t even get the milkweed until next May, which is great,” she said. “People want it so much that it’s not available.”
Burgeson and her team are still determining where the waystations will be placed. She said they are considering planting milkweeds by the bricks in front of the Main Gate.
“That would be kind of a neat way to say, ‘Welcome to Chautauqua,’ not just to all the people visiting but also to the birds and butterflies,” she said.
The Jamestown Audubon Society will serve as a scientific resource for BTG, guiding the group in its construction of waystations. Jeff Tome, a naturalist at the JAS, has worked extensively with monarch butterflies, educating people about the issue and organizing monarch-related events at JAS.
“I did a program for BTG the summer before last on monarch butterflies, and apparently the interest has sparked from there,” he said.
Acker said BTG also plans to incorporate monarch butterfly education into the club’s programs to encourage people who visit Chautauqua to spread the word about the problems facing the insect.
Though large industrial farms have been mostly responsible for the problem due to their extensive use of pesticides and herbicides, Scott Kruitbosch, the conservation and outreach coordinator at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, said the actions of individuals and home gardeners could also improve the situation.
“If everyone took the notion that maybe they should not spray things, then it would make a significant difference,” he said. “The population might not go up to the level it was at 20 years ago, but even just planting milkweed in areas where there might not have been any before could make a big boost.”
Because the decline has occurred so recently, Kruitbosch said it is too soon to determine what kind of an impact it has had on the rest of the food chain. Other insects and pollinators, he said, are suffering the same fate, which could soon affect other organisms and even agricultural production.
Acker recognized the problem is not exclusive to monarch butterflies. For example, she said honeybees have been enduring colony collapse disorder, an imperfectly understood phenomenon whereby worker bees abandon their hive for unknown reasons.
“Many other species, of course, are dying. But sadly, we don’t seem to care as much about them,” she said.
Trained in biology, Acker has always taken an interest in insects and all living things, refraining from killing anything that enters her garden and never using pesticides.
“There are things we can’t always control, like development, but leaving natural areas within [developed] areas is always a plus, not only for the creatures that live there but for the people who are viewing those areas,” she said. “It’s been shown to have a positive mental and emotional affect on people.”
Burgeson hopes the monarch waystation project will inspire Chautauquans to plant milkweed and refrain from pesticide and herbicide usage, as the collective work of many gardeners and concerned individuals could make a difference.
“You can’t really be a gardener without noticing the birds, butterflies and bees in your garden,” she said. “And butterflies in general are just amazing creatures.”