In an effort to help revitalize monarch butterfly numbers, the Ottawa County Parks and Recreation department is building a series of monarch butterfly safe havens, creating the Lake Michigan Monarch Highway.
These safe havens, called monarch waystations, provide shelter, food and an ideal place to lay eggs for the butterflies as they migrate.
Monarch butterflies spend the winter in Mexico, congregating in huge numbers to avoid the cold. Once the weather starts to warm up in the rest of North America, the first generation of a year’s monarch butterflies start to make their way north. On the way, monarchs mate and lay eggs, then die and leave the next generation to continue the journey north. As the summer goes on, this life cycle continues through four generations, until the great grandchildren of the butterflies who started heading north begin the return trip to Mexico for the next winter.
Normally, Michigan is host to the second and third generations of monarch butterflies each year. The vibrant orange and black butterflies arrive in Michigan in early June, then stay and breed in the state until August and September.
Ottawa County is an ideal place for butterfly enthusiasts to find monarch butterflies, said Ottawa County Parks naturalist Curtis Dykstra. The butterflies like to fly near the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Another reason monarch butterflies love Lake Michigan is because the sand dunes are home to milkweed plants, which monarch butterflies need to survive.
“The adult butterflies can nectar on numerous different flowers and get energy from that sugar water,” Dykstra said. “But they like to spend a lot of time on milkweed because the diet of the monarch caterpillar is exclusively milkweed.”
When a monarch butterfly lays eggs, it must lay those eggs on a milkweed plant. When the caterpillars hatch, they spend weeks doing nothing but eating milkweed until they turn into a butterfly.
“The caterpillar lives its entire life on milkweed. If it leaves the plant, it’s in trouble,” Dyskstra said.
As the caterpillars eat the milkweed, they build up the toxins from the milky substance in the plant that gives milkweed its name. That way, birds and other butterfly predators won’t want to eat the poisonous adult monarchs.
Across the country, though, milkweed is disappearing. Herbicides and farming practices have changed significantly in the last 20 years, decimating the milkweed population in North America. The Ottawa County Parks department is trying to rectify that.
“Over the last two decades, we’ve lost 70 percent of our milkweed,” Dykstra said. “It used to grow in those abandoned pastures and the spaces between fields, but more and more farmers are putting fields without any green spaces in between.
“If you grew up on a farm, milkweed was considered a nuisance and you pull them out, but it’s life-giving for the monarch butterfly.”
In concert with logging in Mexico where the butterflies spend their winter, the loss of milkweed plants could be fatal for the monarch population. When biologists measure the monarch population, they measure how many hectares (about 2.5 acres) of land the monarchs take up during the winter in Mexico. In 1996, the monarchs took up 20.97 hectares. Last year, the butterflies encompassed just 2.91 hectares, an 85.8 percent decrease.
To try and rebuild the monarch butterfly population, Ottawa County has established nine monarch waystations and is working on three more. The current waystations are located at Historic Ottawa Beach Park, Hemlock Crossing, Tunnel Park, Riley Trail, Rosy Mound, Kirk Park, Paw Paw Park, Adams Street Landing and Upper Macatawa Natural Area. The county is currently working on creating and certifying three more monarch waystations at North Beach Park, Olive Shores and Pigeon Creek.
“Ottawa County in general, because of the lakeshore, is a great opportunity for this,” said Jessican VanGinhoven, communications specialist for Ottawa County Parks. “We wanted to target those natural areas along the coast. A lot of these places are really great spots.”
VanGinhoven and others within the department are now reaching out to other cities along the Lake Michigan shoreline to stretch the monarch highway past the county.
“We want the highway to stretch all the way along the lakeshore,” VanGinhoven said. “These little stopover sites are places where larvae can grow and they include nectar plants, too. They can eat and it has to include enough shelter in case of inclement weather.”
The county’s monarch waystations are registered with monarchwatch.org, an organization dedicated to revitalizing the monarch butterfly population all over North America. VanGinhoven said the county is also encouraging residents to build their own monarch butterfly waystations at schools or in their backyards. There are instructions on what a certified waystation should include at the MonarchWatch website, along with materials for sale should someone want to start planting milkweed and other native pollinator flowers.
“We’re really hoping to push for anybody that wants to have a waystation in their backyards to do so,” VanGinhoven said. “The other thing that I would suggest is that people keep an eye out for presentations from native landscapers. All over the area, there are ways to learn how to get started on that. If you’ve got some land or work for a school system, we want to help you restore that land.”
Dykstra also suggests helping monarch butterfly populations by reporting any monarch butterfly sightings to journeynorth.org, which tracks where the butterflies are during migration. Along with tracking the butterflies and planting milkweed, Dykstra said to make sure any monarch caterpillars found on the ground should be put back on a milkweed plant.
The Ottawa County Parks Department is holding a milkweed seed collection work day at the Hemlock Crossing monarch waystation from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Sept. 30. The waystation is just to the right of the education center. VanGinhoven said there are enough milkweed plants at Hemlock Crossing that people interested in starting their own monarch waystations are allowed to take some of the cultivated seeds for their own gardens.
“The monarchs are rulers,” Dykstra said. “They are alone to rule the butterfly world, that’s literally what the word monarch means.
“They’re the most commonly recognized butterfly and the most beautiful in North America and they’re facing a lot of threats right now. They’re very vulnerable.”