The DCC was awarded a highly competitive 2021 Tiny Grant of $500 from the Association of Vermont Conservation Commissions (AVCC). As one of seven recipients in the state, the DCC will expand the second year of its project – Inviting Monarch Butterflies to Dummerston – by adding a new cohort of interested Dummerston residents, along with returning participants from the first year. Funds from the grant will help pay for swamp milkweed for participants to plant in their pollinator gardens, attracting monarchs and other valuable pollinating insects. Project members will receive continuous education, mentoring, and participatory experiences focused on pollinator planting and gardening, monarch life cycle identification and data collection, and access to recommended organizations and websites monitoring monarch populations and habitat restoration. Many thanks to AVCC for its support for our project to provide our community an opportunity to participate in the broader movement of climate change mitigation and ecosystem health.
In June 2020, the Dummerston Conservation Commission rolled out its summer project, “Inviting Monarch Butterflies to Dummerston”. The focus of this project was to educate and engage residents in the crucial work of increasing the diversity of habitat to attract a wide variety of pollinators, who are essential to the health of our worldwide ecosystem and to our food supply. Judy Fink, DCC Commissioner and retired educator, had conducted her own informal two year investigation on Monarchs in her garden using Swamp Milkweed, a native cultivar, as a food source for larvae. Based on two successful summers, Judy launched a town project. A local farmer, Helen O’Donnell (Bunker Farm), propagated Swamp Milkweed, and thanks to a donor was able to provide free plants for 20 residents eager to participate in the project. COVID-19 safety issues required that all instruction and interaction was held remotely through email exchanges, photographs and facilitator-created videos.
Unfortunately, the local and national Monarch population declined significantly in 2020. Despite few Monarch sightings in Dummerston, project participants were enthusiastic about continuing the project for a second year and expressed a reinvigorated commitment to Monarch survival and habitat restoration, which is vitally important in years of population decline.
The Dummerston Conservation Commission is expanding this project into its second year, inviting returning participants to participate, and is welcoming new residents to join the fun and excitement. Participants will have an opportunity to buy Swamp Milkweed plants at Bunker Farm, and we will band together to observe and monitor Monarch adult, caterpillar and chrysalis activity this summer.
Here’s how it works:
- On Saturday, June 19 from 11:00 AM-2:00 PM, meet Judy at Bunker Farm to purchase individual or 6 packs of Swamp Milkweed plants lovingly grown by Helen O’Donnell. (Prices TBD, but no more than $4/plant or $6/6-pack). Helen has grown a limited number of plants for this project, and they will be available to buy until the supply runs out.
- Get to work. Research where to plant your Swamp Milkweed, and make sure it will be in a location where you can monitor Monarch activity readily. Observe your plant(s) regularly and document once Monarch butterflies return in early summer. Keep a careful count of eggs, caterpillar stages, chrysalis, and adults. Monarch Joint Ventures and Xerces are two of the many valuable research organizations that will help you get started and continue learning.
- Throughout the summer, Judy will regularly post short videos and Monarch musings on the DCC website and Facebook page, demonstrating how she monitors Monarch activity in her garden.
- Let’s exchange information! We will have an opportunity to talk to each other by email and share stories, photos and videos. We’re hoping to have a field trip or two to Judy’s house on the hill to see what’s going on with Monarchs there. Stay tuned for announcements regarding field trip dates and times.
- Optional participation in Summer BioBlitz (a national Monarch count) and Fall 2021 community presentation (details to follow).
- Keep your Dummerston neighbors informed about what you’re observing! Contact us at the Dummerston Conservation website and Facebook page.
Happy May Flowers, Monarch friends!
I am busily planning our upcoming season of Monarch adventures, and am keeping my fingers crossed for a healthy population of returning butterflies. Helen O’Donnell, our brilliant Bunker Farm grower, and I are looking at a mid-June date for Swamp Milkweed plant pick-up (announcement to come).
Helen wants to make sure she is growing enough plants to sell for this project. Based on your response to my plant question in February, I approximated how many plants we would need to meet your needs plus plants for new participants, and then asked Helen to grow and reserve a quantity for our project. Several folks have already requested plants from Helen, and we are thrilled that the interest in increasing the Monarch population continues to grow. For those of you who responded to my earlier request regarding approximate numbers of plants you would like to order, please let me know if you are planning to buy plants from Helen directly instead of through the project, so we can readjust the numbers of plants Helen is reserving. Helen is happy to sell plants to everyone who wants them, but we also want to make sure we don’t end up with a surplus of plants (or too few) at our kick-off plant event.
Thanks so much. I will be in touch!
Dear Monarch colleagues,
My friend sent me an article about monarch migration in this month’s Smithsonian Magazine. You might want to take a look.
Project Summary June-October 2020
In spring 2020, the Dummerston Conservation Commission rolled out its summer project, “Inviting Monarch Butterflies to Dummerston”, through website postings, e-newsletter mailings, and media distribution. The focus of this project was to educate and engage residents in the crucial work of increasing the diversity of habitat to attract a wide variety of pollinators, who are essential to the health of our worldwide ecosystem and to our food supply.
I had had two previous successful summers providing food for Monarchs in my garden. A significant number of these insects laid their eggs on perennial Swamp Milkweed plants that I had established in my garden, and completed their metamorphosis to adult butterflies. I decided to invite a small number of Dummerston residents who were interested in joining me to participate in a local citizen science project – they would receive a Swamp Milkweed, plant it in their gardens, and monitor Monarch adult, caterpillar and chrysalis activity over the summer. I consulted with grower Helen O’Donnell at Bunker Farm, who agreed to propagate a quantity of Swamp Milkweed plants that we would then distribute to Dummerston residents who expressed interest in this project.
The project officially launched June 4, 2020, when 18 Dummerston residents arrived at the Bunker Farm to pick up a free Swamp Milkweed plant and receive a two-sided information sheet describing and illustrating the Monarch Butterfly life cycle and larval stages. I had an opportunity to chat with each participant about how to plant and care for their Swamp Milkweed, and what to look for when anticipating the arrival of Monarchs ready to lay eggs.
Due to COVID-19 safety issues, other than this initial outside and fully masked distribution, all other instruction and conversation was held remotely. I established a group email list and, beginning June 11 and ending October 16, sent 10 emails detailing Monarch activity in my garden, accompanied by facts, updates and photographs of butterfly activity I was able to document. I encouraged participants to respond to the group. Several felt comfortable doing this, but most responded to me only. Along with information I provided, I included tips on how to collect data and materials needed, and recommended organizations and websites monitoring Monarch populations and habitat restoration.
In addition to regular email correspondence, with the enthusiastic assistance from my husband, Rob Freeberg, I posted a series of 9 videos of butterfly activity in my garden to the Dummerston Conservation Association website Youtube channel. These included capturing larval instar stages, chrysalis formation, and adult butterfly emergence.
Results and Conclusion
As we learned from this summer, the Monarch population fluctuates from year to year, with a natural 5 to 7 year cycle. Populations are also deeply affected by climate, weather and habitat, not only at their Vermont summer location, but along their migration route where they must find food and shelter, and most significantly at their overwintering site in Mexico. After two years of high numbers in VT, summer 2020 was not a good year for Monarchs in VT. John Anderson reported that the Putney Hawk Watch recorded just over 800 Monarch butterflies migrating this fall – a drop of 79% from 2019.
Because of this population decline, many participants in the project saw few, if any adult butterflies in their garden, and were not able to collect data. Also, their Swamp Milkweed plants were just establishing themselves in their gardens, and were not yet a significant source of food for Monarchs.
Fortunately, I had 9 established plants in my garden, and I was able to attract Monarchs who laid eggs, some of which I was able to track through complete metamorphosis. John has observed that Monarchs migrate at high elevation. My house and garden is at 1700 feet in elevation, which is perhaps another reason why I had more success than others in the community.
Despite disappointment about the paucity of Monarch activity in their gardens, participants expressed intellectual curiosity, delight and enthusiasm each time I sent an update, photos, and videos. With the restrictions that COVID enforced, I was challenged to put my rusty teaching skills to use to research and convey information in ways that encouraged participation and remote learning specifically for adults. I truly enjoyed myself. I felt free to express a wonder of the natural world with childlike eyes, and found many of the participants responded similarly. We were not successful collecting data, but we collectively contributed to an understanding of these fragile and beautiful creatures, and to a reinvigorated commitment to their survival.
The primary reason for launching this project was to build awareness of pollinators and work towards improving habitat diversity to strengthen populations. This is vitally important in a year such as this when the population is low. The good news is that most everyone would like to continue the project in 2021. We’ll be starting with year old plants and some baseline knowledge. I appreciate the support and help from my Commission colleagues and from Helen O’Donnell to develop, launch and follow this project to completion. With continued support from the Dummerston Conservation Commission, I am looking forward to using the upcoming winter to develop year two of “Inviting Monarch Butterflies to Dummerston”.
Dummerston Conservation Commissioner
Still about 6 large larvae munching on regular milkweed this week.Haven’t seen a chrysalis all summer, but have some very fresh looking adults feeding on sunny days — estimating about 15-20.Much fewer than last summer, but my log says they were continuing to hatch out of the chrysalises into early October.My one swamp milkweed (planted this year) didn’t flower and I didn’t see any action. Also no action on my 5-6 butterfly weed plants this year. Last year the caterpillars loved them so much I had to move them to the regular milkweed so the plants wouldn’t be destroyed.
What a beautiful video Judy-amazing it could hold on with that wind. I have only seen one Monarch up here this season-the milk weed both that I bought and in the field has done very well so I’m hopeful next year will be better. Even all the purple asters haven’t attracted them here.
But I did have an amazing experience at a friends house last week in Brattleboro. I saw a band of color off to my side where I was standing. It landed right in front of me on the lawn and here is this beauty with his/her wings open and looking so perfect. She had just emerged 4’ away and spent a few minutes on the ground-Wow what a treat to see this. The black, orange, and white were even more vibrant than in this photo plus her speckled body was so striking.
Hi All —I’ve not been very thorough in tracking the handful of caterpillars we’ve had this year, but now we have our first (discovered) J on the north side of the house. My guess is it may not make it, as that wall doesn’t get much sun — just a little very late in the day. But we’ll see. The antennae are starting to wilt, so it may become a chrysalis by nightfall.
Dear Monarch friends and Neighbors,
I was able to capture more Monarch magic two weeks ago. I watched a caterpillar form a chrysalis. The caterpillar had “assumed” the J position about 24 hours before, and I knew the transformation was imminent. I positioned myself in front of the caterpillar and sat for an hour with my phone at the ready. The entire process took about 6 minutes. I took a series of videos, which my trusty videographer (my husband, Rob Freeberg) edited into a concise version (see below), so some of my rambling commentary was cut.
The swamp milkweed plants in my garden are starting to look ragged and aphid infested, though I continue to find small Monarch caterpillars here and there. I don’t know if these specimens will make it through a complete cycle and then migrate, especially with predicted cold weather possibly destroying food sources for caterpillars and adults. In addition to the chrysalis I filmed, I have discovered 2 more, and I don’t know if any of them will make it to adulthood.
Thank you for participating in this adventure with me. I have learned so much and it’s been a great diversion from all the disturbing news. We’re doing our small part to improve our local habitat for many of the pollinators who are necessary to the health of our complex natural world. Please let me know if you want to continue participating in this project next spring.
In the next few weeks, I will send you a summary and post it on the Dummerston Conservation Commission website.
Take care and all the best!
Great – I think you are Monarch Central. My four stage 5 caterpillars have been gone for several days. I keep looking everywhere and cant find that they have formed their cristalist (sp) I am just hoping that they are hiding well and will become butterflies. I still ha e only seen the one Monarch from earlier.
The Monarchs have finally arrived. Yesterday I saw one. Today they are flying all over. Love the clover blossoms in the field and the Butterfly bushes. They are mating and right in front of me. Hard to count as they keep moving but I have counted six. I don’t think they are from my four caterpillars as it hasn’t been long enough. Will have to check for eggs again.
Is it too late to plant more swamp Swamp milkweed for next year if I can find some?
So great to hear Jody’s news! Just remember that this year’s little swamp milkweed will grow back bigger and stronger next year. I have a couple of seed pods ready to burst and I plan to disperse the seeds in the garden and in the field near my house. I hope to have plants for people to dig up and put in their gardens next spring.
I observed a third chrysalis emerge into a glorious butterfly yesterday afternoon in my garden, after 18 days as a chrysalis. It rested overnight and took its first flight mid-morning. And a caterpillar crawled to a lamp on the side of the house and is just about ready to form a chrysalis… Monarch mash-up? Mayhem?
I will be interested to see what the Putney Mountain Hawk Watch counts for their Monarch migration this fall.
Thanks to all for sharing your comments and questions. We’re not done yet!
Just when I thought the action was winding down here at Monarch Central, I discovered at least 9 big (stage 4-5) caterpillars, most of them on a very sturdy plant that had not had much nibbling. Obviously they’ve been here – eating and growing and shedding – for quite some time, but I hadn’t been looking for caterpillars in recent weeks. Based on data I collected previous summers, I assumed things were winding down about now. Perhaps that was because in previous years, the first wave had eaten most of the leaves on my milkweed and I never saw the second generation, which went elsewhere to lay eggs and feast! Suzanne told me that in past years she had seen most of her Monarch activity later in the summer into early fall.
This new observation reinforces to me how I shouldn’t assume anything – that I should try to keep my eyes open to discoveries and possibilities every day. I am hoping you’ll get to discover some activity on your plants, too!
The first photo shows at least 4 caterpillars, if you look carefully; the second shows 2.
Dear Monarch friends,
I remember the lyrics to one of the songs we sang in chorus a few years back – “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for…”
Yesterday, as it veered toward evening, I noticed that the chrysalis on the back of the porch rocking chair was starting to darken – a sure sign that the butterfly might emerge any minute/hour. I hoped it didn’t choose the nighttime route like last week’s butterfly on the garden hose. This morning, starting at 7:00, I positioned myself in front of the rocking chair (okay, I admit I kept moving the rocking chair so that the emergence would be well lit), and sat for 4 hours with coffee and a book. A perfect way to spend the morning, and I was richly rewarded!
The two photos show the “before” and the video link captures the emergence.