“If you do not have milkweeds, you do not have monarchs,” philosophized Jim Rodwell of the Friends of the Matanzas Pass Preserve. In a perfectly symbiotic relationship, he summarized, “No monarchs, no milkweeds! Monarchs and natural milkweeds are both going extinct in Florida, while the milkweeds we don’t want are everywhere.” To reverse these trends, the Friends are implementing a Monarch butterfly program in Matanzas Pass Preserve, with a specific type of volunteer needed to assist this twin endeavor.
“We are looking for citizen-scientists,” said Jim. “We need people to count, measure, and inspect the milkweeds in Matanzas Pass Preserve, using rulers and measuring tapes and magnifying glasses to keep constant track of them, as well as looking for larva and chewed leaves and caterpillars, then recording all this on monitoring sheets. We have to be scientific, as 80% of Monarch eggs do not hatch due to predators, insecticides, and all other insects that are their enemy, so we must get rid of them by getting in there and washing them off, so you really have to get your hands in there! Right now, it takes roughly 90 minutes to monitor our six plots.”
The Monarch is a milkweed butterfly and iconic pollinator whose wings feature an easily-recognizable black, orange, and white pattern with a roughly 4-inch wingspan. Milkweeds get their name from their milky sap that attracts Monarchs; one of the biggest factors in the Monarch decline is the increasing scarcity of its only caterpillar host plant, the milkweed, leading to the huge Monarch loss over the last 2 decades.
Janice Smith and Ruthanne North are beach residents who are already a citizen-scientist monitoring team. “We count the plants, collect data, look for eggs, measure the height of the plants, and see if they have any caterpillars or larva,” offered Janice. She began as a citizen-scientist when the Matanzas Pass Preserve program started last May: “I just like butterflies, not just Monarchs but them all, as my daughter has a butterfly garden and raises different species. It is still a learning process.”
She first volunteered at Matanzas Pass Preserve roughly 7 years ago, in 2010 “when Disney World encouraged things like this with their ‘Give a Day; Get a Day’ free admission program, so that is why I started. Now, I just love it and would never think of giving it up, though I always keep handy a tube of Ben-Gay!”
Ruthanne is Janice’s neighbor. “I do whatever she says! Janice told me about the need for citizen-scientists and I joined in June, about a month after it began. I do a lot of volunteer work, usually with nature in one form or another, and am a big fan of the author Michael Pollan and his work in spreading the message concerning the importance of pollinating that is crucial to nature and people. Everything about Monarchs fascinates me.”
The best milkweeds for Monarchs are the pink swamp species that no longer grows naturally in Matanzas Pass Preserve, so the Friends reintroduced it by purchasing 100 from the Koreshan State Historic Site nursery, already transplanting 47 into open and dry areas. “We want to keep chemicals out of here,” said Jim, “so we look for areas that are low or bare of exotics, to establish Monarch sites, as we prefer the natural way. We do not do butterfly releases but encourage them to return here and lay their eggs and be happy butterflies!”
As if on-cue, a Monarch alights upon a milkweed and feeds on its nectar. “Milkweed is the premier nectar source in Florida for Monarchs,” Jim explained. “She not only gets her nourishment from them, but can smell them. Butterflies in Southwest Florida do not migrate, but form their own colony. Others are from as far north as Canada and winter as far south as Mexico, taking four generations to return to their migration origin.”
Jim offered, “Our objective is to save the Monarchs and milkweed, and there is a good possibility we can accomplish that here. We must get people involved and that is the trick – get them out of their condos and into nature as citizen-scientists. There are a lot of gardeners on Fort Myers Beach, and my desire is to show them we can accomplish this here, to make this environment more available for people to see, so help us, as I need more citizen scientists!” To assist, call him at 239-565-7437, with the next 90-minute monitoring session on Friday, September 1, at 8 a.m.
Swamp milkweed plants can be obtained from the Native Plant Society at the Farmer’s Market held at Koreshan State Historic Site each Sunday from 8am-1pm in Estero.
Jim has a simple goal: “Get enough citizen-scientists to increase monitoring from every other week to weekly. A major triumph would be having enough volunteers that I no longer have to show up every week to supervise!”