By Peter Vankevich
When an animal is part of a sustained news cycle, it frequently is not good news.
The monarch butterfly is one of them. This beautiful large butterfly seen primarily in the fall here has distinctive orange and black wings.
It ranges from southern Canada, throughout the United States to northern Mexico. They are famous for making a fall migration, some as many as thousands of miles, to the mountainous forests of central Mexico.
Formerly a common sight, a decline began over the last 40 years.
In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a disturbing report that one billion monarchs had disappeared from their wintering habitat.
The eastern migratory monarch butterfly population has decreased by more than 80%, according to one study.
A major cause of this precipitous decline is a loss of milkweed plants, the only plant where they will lay their eggs and the caterpillars will feed on the leaves. The loss of these plants is due to extensive use of herbicides and habitat loss.
Although not on the endangered species list, the monarch is a species of concern and the governments of Canada, United States and Mexico and a host of nongovernmental organizations, state agencies and academic institutions are making multiple conservation efforts to make them a common sight like old times.
On Ocracoke, Gil and Jann Randel who for years have recorded in a database called Hawk Count the number of migrating falcons, hawks, ospreys and vultures that pass-through Ocracoke in the fall, also keep a list of the number of monarchs they see and record them in the Hawk Watch Monarch Butterfly Migration Monitoring database
On the personal level, folks can customize their backyard gardens to make them monarch friendly. Such a garden can have residual benefits by helping badly needed pollinators and other fauna.
Can Ocracoke be monarch friendly?
Joseph Ramunni, owner of the Ocracoke Garden Center, says it already is because many flowering plants will provide food for monarchs on their migratory journey.
He doesn’t sell milkweed plants but said that most of the flowering plants in the center always have butterflies around them.
At her house on British Cemetery Road, Anne Becker is giving milkweeds the old college try.
“I have a small yard but want to create a safe and abundant stop for both monarch butterflies and birds on their journeys,” said Becker, who has planted a dozen milkweeds. “It’s important to get the right kind, though,” she added.
While all milkweed is attractive to butterflies, the so-called Eastern Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), the one with pink flowers, is the one to plant here, she said.
Becker was referring to sclepias incarnata, the milkweed that was once abundant along the East Coast and that monarchs uniquely rely on.
Just about anyone on Ocracoke can plant Eastern Swamp Milkweed as it thrives in our hot and humid environment and, once established, requires little if any regular care.
It can be sensitive to intense storms and flooding. So, milkweed should be planted in a raised bed or any spot that doesn’t flood, including in pots on your deck.
After monarchs arrive in the late summer, when the leaves get munched and disappear, that simply means they’ve succeeded in laying and hatching their offspring.
Becker planted her milkweed two years ago, and it is now starting to spread.
Her biggest plant now looks like a giant green twig, which shows that monarchs were there and laid eggs and the babies fed.
Not waiting for the milkweed to mature, Anne has planted other native plants including the saltmarsh fleabane (Pluchea odorata), considered one of the 50 best butterfly attracting plants for North Carolina.
Now is the time to shop for Eastern Swamp Milkweed, which should be planted in autumn or early spring.
The Ocracoke Garden Center currently does not have milkweed plants, but several online nurseries will even ship milkweed plants.
For more information about the plant and growing it, visit NC State’s overview at https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/asclepias-incarnata/.
Anne Becker contributed to this story.