FIRE ISLAND—Every autumn, monarch butterflies throughout the region embark on an incredible collective migratory journey all the way down to Mexico for the winter season. Local resident Justine Dill – who has studied butterflies over the years and even turned the campus greenhouse at SUNY New Paltz into a butterfly exhibit during college – offered advice and steps on how to help the plight of the butterflies as their numbers as a whole continue to dwindle due to overdevelopment and issues resulting from climate change.
Together in groups (named “roosts”) that can number over 500, the monarchs make their way across thousands of miles to reach the warmer southern climates once per year. Fascinatingly, this particular generation – dubbed the “super butterfly” – is able to live for six months in comparison to its summer ancestors, who live and reproduce over just two-week cycles.
“This one somehow genetically knows to fly all the way to Mexico, even though it’s never been there before,” said Dill. “Much of it is still a great mystery to scientists.”
Dill is a Patchogue resident who graduated from Patchogue-Medford High School in 2009. Growing up as a child, she said that she enjoyed catching butterflies with her net and analyzing them. Later on, she spent time as a volunteer at the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead’s butterfly exhibit, and is currently in the process of becoming a biology teacher. Nowadays, she is working to spread the word about the dangers facing the species and how people can assist in stimulating a growth in its population.
“Over time – like most animals these days – they’re getting closer to becoming endangered because of habitat destruction,” said Dill.
In addition, the monarchs are among a list of other animals that are feeling the negative impacts of unpredictable weather patterns resulting from climate change.
“A significant amount of rainstorms can wipe out thousands of them,” said Dill. “Or if it’s really cold out in the northern range they can freeze to death. It’s also important for them to stay up in trees while they’re resting. If they get knocked down they can just die right there.”
As the butterflies make their trek south, they routinely stop in certain locations along the way to rest. One such region is Fire Island from around Robert Moses all the way out towards Montauk.
“You can find them all along roosts on Fire Island,” said Dill.
Perhaps the monarch’s most critical food source is the native milkweed plant – which produces a milky white sap with a taste so bitter that it makes them undesirable food options for other critters.
Dill suggested that planting milkweed on one’s property creates a place for the butterflies to lay eggs and for their caterpillars to grow. Milkweed is generally ideal to plant in the fall so that they are well-acclimated and ready for butterflies and caterpillars to utilize come springtime.
“As we continue to clear fields, mow the sides of highways, and cut down wild weeds, they’re losing a food source for their caterpillars,” she said. “It’s definitely a nationwide issue.”
Other ways to help monarch butterflies include providing nectar plants that bloom during the fall migration, avoiding pesticides that can kill butterflies at any and all stages of the life cycle, practicing sustainable farming, limiting mowing (particularly during the late summer as the migration generation develops), and to record/report monarch observations and sightings to organizations like Journey North at www.learner.org/jnorth/monarchs.
“People can submit reports on what they’ve seen and access so much information about the populations in their area and the obstacles they face,” said Dill.
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