December 12, 2018
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Mainers set up a butterfly carpool to help migrating monarchs travel safely south

Courtesy of Brittany Cooper
Courtesy of Brittany Cooper
This late-hatching monarch butterfly was helped on its migration south by a midcoast woman who worked to get it a warm ride all the way to North Carolina.

One day at the end of September, Brittany Cooper noticed a bright green monarch butterfly pupa, or chrysalis, attached to a calendula plant at Avena Botanicals in Rockport.

Cooper, 27, of Hope was working at the herbal company this summer, and she took note of the chrysalis and checked on it periodically. But as time went on, the butterfly didn’t emerge, and she grew concerned.

“It had been so long, we thought she was not going to make it,” she said of the butterfly inside the chrysalis, which was later determined to be a female. “We hoped that she would just be able to hatch and fly on her own. But it got later and later and colder and colder. I felt bad and decided to bring her in to give her more of a chance.”

She settled the chrysalis inside, and in the third week of October looked up to discover a monarch butterfly.

“It was really sweet. So beautiful to see,” Cooper said. “When they first come out, their wings look floppy and heavy, like they’re wet. They hang on to the chrysalis for a little while and let the wings dry off. She didn’t start to fly for almost a day.”

Normally, the butterfly would then head south, joining the annual monarch migration to specific sites in the mountains of Mexico, where tens of thousands cluster together on oyamel fir trees to hibernate and overwinter. In March, they leave Mexico to head to the northern United States and Canada in search of milkweeds to lay their eggs.

It’s a timeless cycle for North America’s iconic monarch butterfly, immediately identifiable by its orange-and-black wings. Climate change, though, has stressed butterflies, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. The population of the species has declined 95 percent in the past 20 years, some of which may be caused by milkweed habitat reduction. But part of the decline may also be attributed to shifting temperatures.

For example, the migration in the fall has been delayed by as much as six weeks in recent years because warmer-than-normal temperatures have failed to trigger the butterflies’ instincts to head south, according to the environmental organization.

Cooper knew that butterfly populations are in trouble, and she didn’t just want to ignore the plight of this particular monarch. The butterfly had emerged too late in the fall, and she felt her future was in jeopardy.

“It was way too cold. I think it snowed the next day,” Cooper said. “It was a little too late to release her here and have her survive.”

Courtesy of Brittany Cooper
Courtesy of Brittany Cooper
Brittany Cooper of Hope feeds the monarch butterfly she helped on its migration south.

So she and another Avena employee first figured out how to feed the monarch, putting juice from an overripe cantaloupe on a sponge and letting the butterfly have at it. The monarch uncurled her straw-like proboscis, through which she sucks nectar and water, and drank the cantaloupe juice, Cooper said.

“It was really cool to watch,” she said.

To solve the problem of what to do with the late-season monarch, Cooper turned to social media. She shared a post on the Midcoast Message Board on Facebook in an effort to find the monarch a ride.

“I have an incredible opportunity for someone driving south within the next couple of days,” she wrote. “We had a late monarch chrysalis [emerge] at Avena two days ago and are trying to exhaust every possibility of getting her to a warmer climate that will allow her to fly south with the rest of the monarchs. She’s absolutely precious and would probably be a very easy car companion!”

Cooper didn’t expect much from social media. In fact, she kind of figured that if people responded at all it would be to belittle her idea. But that’s not what happened. Lots of people got in touch with her, with some offering help and a few others saying that they had late-emerging monarchs they weren’t sure what to do with, either.

“I was very surprised,” she said. “It was wonderful. So many people were so excited and wanted to help.”

One of her friends who lives in southern Maine happened to see her plea for help, and knew a woman who was driving as far south as New Jersey. Another person was heading from New Jersey to southern North Carolina. Cooper made a butterfly carrier, putting plants in it and some food, too. She also went to Belfast to pick up a couple of other late-emerging monarch butterflies to join in on the journey.

And so the monarchs comfortably traveled about 1,000 miles of their migration in some style.

“They all made it,” Cooper said. “The woman [in North Carolina] said they looked strong and healthy and were able to fly away. It was a happy ending.”

But that’s not all that made her feel happy.

“It’s so good to see that kindness extended,” she said. “It really lifted my heart. I’m really grateful to the people who helped the butterflies get a better chance.”


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