Arlys Hopkins, Washington, knows there are many benefits to having butterflies in the ecosystem (for one, they are pollinators, just like the honeybee), but at the top of her list is their beauty. Personally, she considers them a gift from God.
“When I see a butterfly, I think God created the butterfly for me to enjoy,” said Hopkins.
Sitting at her kitchen table wearing a shirt with butterflies across it and earrings to match, Hopkins fanned out photos of a recent trip she took to Mexico, where monarch butterflies from this area migrate more than 2,000 miles each winter to hibernate in the Oyamel fir trees of the Sierra Madre Mountains.
The trip was a gift to Hopkins from her son, John, and his friend Florencio, who has family in Mexico and speaks fluent Spanish, in honor of her 80th birthday. It had been a dream of Hopkins’ to go since 1975 when she read an article in National Geographic.
“The cover story was called ‘Monarchs Found,’ ” she recalled. “It was the first time that scientists knew where the monarchs had gone in the winter . . . to a certain elevation, where it’s cool, but it doesn’t freeze, and someone had found them there.
“As soon as I knew there was a place, that was where I wanted to go . . . I just never did and thought I probably never would be able to.”
In the nearly 40 years since reading that article, Hopkins has followed closely news of the monarchs.
Lately she is disturbed to read how they are decreasing in numbers. The reasons fall on both sides of the border, said Hopkins.
In Mexico, the Oyamel fir trees are being cut down, leaving the monarchs less winter habitat, and in America, there are fewer and fewer milkweed plants, which are the only place monarchs lay their eggs, she explained.
Last fall Hopkins planted milkweed that she purchased from a sale at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, and she’s encouraging others to follow her lead.
Members at Hopkins’ church, Peace Lutheran, stand behind her in this cause and are making plans to establish a butterfly garden, both with nectar flowers for the adult monarchs and milkweed for their eggs.
The church also plans to have information available for anyone else interested in establishing a butterfly garden. People can call the church and leave a message, 636-239-1878.
‘It Felt Like a Holy Place’
Hopkins’ trip to see the monarchs began in Mexico City where she also was eager to see paintings by Diego Rivera, considered by many the greatest Mexican painter of the 20th century.
She also visited the ruins of Teotihuacán (about 30 miles north of Mexico City) and climbed the 248 steps up the Pyramid of the Sun, which is the third-largest pyramid in the world.
Seeing the monarchs took nearly as much effort to get up the mountain to where they were.
“I had to ride a horse, and I had never,” said Hopkins, with a laugh. “So it was quite traumatic, going up for a half-hour . . . It’s all grass and trees.”
When they arrived at the site, Florencio asked Hopkins how she felt.
“I said, ‘I feel like crying, it’s so beautiful. This is a holy place.’ You just felt like it was . . . Everyone held their voices down, like it was a holy place,” said Hopkins. “I get goose bumps when I think about it.”
Thousands of monarchs were gathered on the trunks of the trees, hanging there in the shade, she said. From a distance, they don’t look like butterflies because their wings are closed, which means you don’t see their brightly colored wings.
“On the branches of the trees, they make these pods hanging close together,” said Hopkins. “When the sun would hit that, they would turn orange, because their wings would open. They would be in the sun for a while, but then they would go to a place that was more shady. They didn’t stay in the sun so much.”
When they did fly around, it was breathtaking, said Hopkins.
“When we looked through the trees, they were filled with butterflies just racing through,” she remarked. “Thousands of them, flying above and all around you.”
On the ground there were lots of dead monarchs. Those were males who die after using all of their sperm mating with females, Hopkins explained. When the time comes, the females will fly to Texas and lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed plant leaves before they too die.
The females know when it’s time to fly north by the sun, said Hopkins.
“When the sun comes to a certain point, it’s a trigger that it’s time,” she said.
‘We Need to Plant Butterfly Gardens’
There are a number of conservation efforts under way, both in America and Mexico, to protect the monarch and increase its numbers.
Ecology groups are raising funds to plant new Oyamel fir trees in Mexico to replace the monarchs’ lost habitat, down from as many as 44.9 acres in the mid-1990s to just 1.7 acres this winter season, according to an article in January in the Minneapolis, Minn., Star Tribune.
Hopkins, who lived in Minnesota while raising her family, still has friends in St. Paul who know her interest in monarchs and send her information when they come across it.
Aside from planting more trees in Mexico, Franklin County residents can help the effort too by planting milkweed, said Hopkins.
The monarch will only lay her eggs on milkweed plants, she noted. The caterpillar hatched from the egg will only eat milkweed, which makes him toxic and bad tasting to birds and other predators.
As the female monarchs travel from Mexico to Texas and further north, they need places to stop along the way to eat (nectar) and to lay their eggs (milkweed).
It isn’t the same female who leaves Texas and arrives here in Missouri or Minnesota, Hopkins said. There are multiple generations of butterflies in that one cycle.
The females that leave Mexico die in Texas after laying their eggs. Those eggs become caterpillars that become the monarchs that continue the trip north to Missouri and beyond.
“What we need to do in Washington, Mo., to help is we need to plant butterfly gardens,” said Hopkins.
“You have to have certain things for monarchs — you have to have milkweed, not for the adults to eat, but because it’s what they lay their eggs on because that is what the caterpillar needs to eat.”
There is a type of milkweed plant known as butterfly milkweed that has attractive orange flowers that home gardeners would probably like, said Hopkins. They can be found at local nursery centers.
There are other types too, including one that grows like a vine and can choke off other plants growing around it. Hopkins doesn’t recommend it.
“It wraps itself around your flowers, and chokes them. It uses them for support,” she said.
Still, it is milkweed and the monarchs will use it.
Today there isn’t as much milkweed as in the past, for various reasons, including DDT use years ago and mowing areas along side highways.
“There are milkweeds in Missouri, but we need more,” said Hopkins. “We miss that flocking of monarchs that we could have if we have more food for them.
“Since we know now that they are decreasing, and it isn’t a big deal for us to help them stay, I think we should,” said Hopkins.
“Mostly I just want to encourage people to watch the monarch. It’s a butterfly that children can recognize. They can see the markings really well.”