Monarch butterflys

The caterpillars of monarch butterflies, like this one in Lancaster, use milkweed as their primary food source.

MOST of my fishing partners would agree that my equipment is well organized. Some would go a step further and suggest that my methods border on the obsessive. I am not sure how to describe my system other than noting that when I need to find something, I know right where it is.

Of course, the first step is admitting I have a problem.

The same might be said about my books, tools and anything else that requires a high level of detail, including my garden. The rows of fruits, vegetables and flowers are arranged in a way that is both practical and visually appealing. Nothing is out of place and weeds do not get taller than one inch before they are escorted off the premises.

There is one exception to those invasive plants that exist outside my planning and is one that I have grown a fond appreciation for as of late. The milkweed plant is aggressive, opportunistic, and very easy to identify. Where I used to pluck them quickly, I now cater to them and encourage their growth. These plants are the primary food for monarch butterflies and are part of a fascinating ecology that I hope to promote.

I have very little knowledge concerning these butterflies, but it is well publicized that they have migration routes that are, by all standards, amazing. The fact that a flying insect near my home in Coos County might end up over 2,000 miles away in Mexico is truly baffling and my interest in their life cycle is considerable. I have decided to help them out if I can.

While there are several species of milkweed, those that sprout up in my garden seem to be whichever is preferred by the monarch and I often note their arrival around the beginning of August. It is not uncommon to see the beautiful, heavily striped insect in and around these succulent plants for most of the month.

Like many species of concern, the monarch butterfly is at risk of decline due to habitat loss. Our changing climate and agricultural practices have reduced the historic range of milkweed and forced significant adaptations on this amazing creature.

Female monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed and the young are in immediate contact with a food source. The eggs are susceptible to predation from many sources, including beetles and spiders.

Highly specialized, the larval stage (caterpillars) feed only on milkweed and, as such, their importance cannot be overstated. Fewer plants mean fewer caterpillars and fewer adults. Adult butterflies can feed on the nectar of many different flowering plants and rarely live longer than a month.

The life cycle becomes even more unique when considering that they complete one or two generations, bolstering their population numbers, before and during the long migration. Equipped with paper-thin wings, adult butterflies submit themselves rather helplessly to air currents and southerly winds that help them cover long distances.

Great distances coupled with a short lifespan may seem like an inadequate approach to migration and monarchs will often stop, mate and die. When the subsequent offspring reach adulthood, they continue the journey with a determination that is unmatched in nature. Those adults laying eggs on the milkweed in my garden might be the second or third generation of this caravan.

For many years, I pulled milkweed out by the root wherever it threatened the organization of my landscaping. With a greater understanding of and appreciation for the monarch butterfly, I am happy to let it propagate and aid in one of the most fascinating life cycles in New Hampshire.

Adventures Afield with Andy Schafermeyer appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Contact Andy at troutandsalmon1@gmail.com