Tag Archives: monarch

Seeds for Spring

Fall is in full swing; leaves are falling and monarch butterflies have arrived in Mexico for the winter.   In preparation for their return, National Wildlife Refuges and Fish Hatcheries throughout the Northeast are busy as bees preparing for pollinators this coming spring. Some of the great pollinator projects happening the fall include gardens and schoolyard habitats, outreach events, and planning summer camps, but these only begin to scratch the surface of the magnitude of the efforts to conserve these iconic species. Below is a map identifying field stations in the Northeast that received pollinator seeds and materials to begin projects or continue existing projects this fall.

Like many refuges across the region, Iroquois NWR has been fervently engaged in enhancing pollinator awareness.  Not only do they perform extensive pollinator outreach, sharing with young people the miraculous journey that monarchs make each year and their fundamental role in plant reproduction, but they also host student research that focuses on the impact of habitat management actions on monarch populations. Iroquois NWR is happy to announce that late October should give rise to a new and improved garden for pollinators when visiting administrative staff from the Northeast will reclaim and enhance the space using seed donated from the Monarch Conservation Initiative.  This will allow us to expand our efforts, using it as a teaching tool and garnering more support for these invertebrates that we hold dear!

In New Jersey, Cape May National Wildlife Refuge plans to plant a pollinator garden at the Two Mile Beach Unit in Wildwood Crest this fall so that the plants are ready to burst into growth in early spring. The garden will be strategically placed along the bike path and visible from the Dune Trail so hundreds of walkers and bikers alike can easily view the area. Interpretive signage will be utilized to convey the importance and purpose of pollinator gardens and grown plants will be labeled so interested individuals can know what beneficial plants to grow in their own backyard. The chosen area is surrounded by the marshland, grassland, maritime forest, and beach habitats on the Two Mile Beach Unit so the garden will lend itself to the already diverse array of habitats and pollinators will likely seek out the area. The Refuge looks forward to being a small haven for pollinators come spring and sharing that with visitors.

At the New England Field Office, Endangered Species Biologist Susi von​ ​Oettingen​ and Partners for Fish and Wildlife biologist Ted Kendziora​ are teaming up with ​​the New England Hemophilia Association ​to bring pollinators to ​NEHA’s Family Summer ​Camp ​​​​and the Geneva Point Conference Center next year. With ​​monarchs and bees on the decline, seeds will be used to create a pollinator garden with native wildflowers to benefit all pollinators. Students will have the opportunity to get hands on with seed and planting activities to create new habitat while learning the important ties these species have to agriculture and native ecosystems. The pollinator garden will be a permanent feature of the Center for visitors from other camps, conferences, school groups and special events to see and learn about.

Are you interested in helping create habitat at home or in your local community? Learn more about how you can help protect monarchs and pollinators.

Black swallowwort vines will completely cover any ground structure

A black swallowwort by any other name is still just as toxic

Today's blog post comes from Jordon Tourville, an intern with USFWS at the Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex. He is interested in invasive plant management and policy as well as hiking around New England.

Today’s blog post comes from Jordon Tourville, an intern with USFWS at the Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex. He is interested in invasive plant management and policy as well as hiking around New England.

As an Invasives Intern with USFWS in Rhode Island, I have the unfortunate privilege to find some of the worst invasive plants in the country. I’ve engaged in hand to hand combat with oriental bittersweet vines 50 feet tall and sailed through seas of Japanese knotweed. Given all of this, I believe that one of the most dastardly invasives out there is black swallowwort (Vincetoxicum nigrum).

Black swallowwort vines will completely cover any ground structure

Black swallowwort vines will completely cover any ground structure Photo credit: Jordan Tourville/USFWS

Known also by its street name, the dog strangling vine, this plant has the potential to harm a multitude of different species from all walks of life. Introduced to the United States as an ornamental from Eastern Europe around 1854, black swallowwort can now be found throughout the northeast. Its large shiny dark-green leaves and its sinister looking dark purple to black flowers make it very easy to spot. It’s true that at first glance this vine might not seem too bad, but just beneath its beautiful exterior lays a deadly siren call to all of our beloved monarch butterflies.

While the roots of black swallowwort are toxic to mammals, the leaves are equally unpalatable for some insects, which include the monarch butterfly. Given the physical similarities and habitat overlap between black swallowwort and the common native monarch host plant, milkweed, adult monarchs will occasionally lay their eggs on the invasive vine. The result is mass mortality of monarch larvae, and yet another blow to our efforts in restoring their population numbers.

Adult monarch butterfly

Adult monarch butterfly
Photo credit: Anne-Marie Conard/USDA Forest Service

Instead of throwing in the towel and continuing to allow black swallowwort to plague our lands, livestock and butterflies, an enterprising team out of the University of Rhode Island is experimenting with different insects and other biocontrol agents. Their goal is to find the right candidate that will stem the tide of the swallowwort invasion. Given more time and the right resources, we may soon have a new weapon with which to strike back against this reckless invader.

USFWS staff and volunteers manually pulling black swallowwort regrowth. Biocontrol aganets are also needed for effective control of this plant. Hypena opulenta is one moth which shows great promise as a biocontrol agent.

USFWS staff and volunteers manually pulling black swallowwort regrowth. Biocontrol aganets are also needed for effective control of this plant. Hypena opulenta is one moth which shows great promise as a biocontrol agent.

Black swallowwort, the dog strangling vine, my worst nightmare; any one of these names could be applied to this robust invasive plant species, but regardless of its label, black swallowwort continues to be a toxic plant that causes untold harm to us and to threatened species that we are trying to protect.

Monarchs Arrive for Day of the Dead

It’s early November and, monarchs have finally completed their migration! The ones who have beat all the odds and survived predators, parasites, storms and a 3,000 mile flight, are ready to rest for the winter months in the Transvolcanic Mountains of Mexico.


Map of monarch migration.

During winter, the normally solitary monarchs will roost in large groups to stay warm and maintain fat reserves they’ve accumulated from the fall, clinging tightly to each other in oyamel fir forests. These tiny, dwindling stands of trees provide a microclimate with ideal temperature, humidity, and elevation for monarchs to overwinter. On brief, sunny occasions, monarchs will venture off in search of water, never straying too far from the protective cover of the mature fir canopy.

Monarch populations are monitored during the winter months because their distribution is so widespread during the migration and breeding seasons. While breeding populations in late summer are much larger, many monarchs don’t survive the migration and therefore do not contribute to the next spring’s generation. NatureServe and The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation estimate monarchs occupy about 1.65 acres of oyamel fir forests across 12 different locations, a sharp decline from the 50 acre stand used by wintering monarchs in the late 1990s. As many know, the populations have dropped significantly in the last 20 years. Last winter marked the smallest overwintering monarch population that has ever been recorded. There are many factor influencing the decline of monarch populations. The occurrence of episodic weather events and loss of summer breeding habitat contribute to declining numbers, while illegal logging and invasive species have fragmented and compromised the integrity of the oyamel forests in which the monarchs overwinter.

Monarchs feeding on nectar.

Monarchs feeding on nectar.

If this fascinating journey and tale of survival wasn’t interesting enough, the arrival of the monarchs coincides with a significant event in Mexican culture. October 31 marks the beginning of  “El Dia de los Muertos” or Day of the Dead, a time when everyone comes together to celebrate and remember deceased family, friends, and ancestors. Monarchs arriving at the wintering grounds in Mexico this time of year are the “great grandchildren” of the monarchs that began the migration cycle in March of the previous year. Unlike their parents and grandparents that lived for several weeks, the migrating generation will live upwards of nine months as they overwinter in Mexico.

Day of the Dead artwork by Ryan Connors.

“The Monarch Returns.” by Ryan Conners

Day of the Dead coincides with the Christian holy days, All Hallows Eve, All Saint’s Day, and All Souls days which are celebrated October 31 through November 2. As Catholic traditions and indigenous cultures mixed, monarchs have come to represent the souls of loved ones returning to visit each year.

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