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The Disappearing Monarchs

Even if you aren't a butterfly expert. chances are you can identify the orange and black wings of the Monarch - that is, if you can find one. Monarchs typically return to Maine every year from down south, but they're nowhere to be found. Dave Sherwood reports.

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Monarch Butterfly

To help solve the mystery of the missing monarch, Bob and Rose Marie Gobeil have hopped the ferry to the Swan Island Wildlife Management Area on the Kennebec River in Richmond.

"We've been looking for monarchs since the middle of July, but so far, we have yet to see one. Hopefully, today, we'll find one today on the island," says Bob Gobeil.

The Gobeils are volunteers for the Maine butterfly survey. It's a state-run program that depends on what researchers call citizen scientists, who help find, photograph and document butterflies across the state. Armed with white butterfly nets and cameras, this retired couple doesn't miss much.

"So we're a team. And it makes it a lot easier to find unusual species. And we just like to go out for the exercise, we like to hike, and this is a perfect way of, at the same time, gathering information for the Maine Butterfly Survey," says Bob Gobeil.

The Gobeil's have been coming to Swan Island every two weeks since early May. But most surprising this summer is not what they've seen - but what they haven't.

"These fields should be full of flying monarchs. Because of the amount, the number, of milkweed plants on the island, literally acres, it's almost perfect for butterflies," says Bob Gobeil.

If you're on the hunt for monarchs, one important place to start is milkweed. Milkweed is a tall, green plant that grows in meadows and along roadsides. Monarchs depend on milkweed at every stage of their lifecycle. It's a favorite food of Monarch caterpillars, and its sweet-smelling nectar attracts adult butterflies as well. But here, in this patch of abundant milkweed, no monarchs.

"The monarch is so bright, it's large, and it's usually in abundance, so people just see it and, 'Oh, there goes a monarch.' But to have that absence is really strange, not to see them anywhere," says Rose Marie Gobiel.

Thanks to the work of other citizen scientists across the monarchs range - from Minnesota and Michigan east to New York and northern New England - it's clear that the monarchs are missing. So the question is, where are they?

"We're all scratching our heads." That's Herb Wilson, a professor of biology at Colby College, and a coordinator for the Maine Butterfly Survey.

"It's a tricky question with monarchs, because they have an extraordinarily complicated lifecycle. What's causing the decline here may in fact have little to do with Maine. Maine, in fact, may be perfectly fine in terms of providing sufficient habitat. But it's conditions to our south that may be problematic," says Herb Wilson.

That's because monarchs can't live year round in Maine. It's too cold. So they migrate. But this isn't just any migration. These butterflies weigh less than a paper clip with a brain no bigger than a blueberry, but somehow, they make their way 3,000 miles south to a few isolated mountaintops in Mexico - the same mountaintops where their ancestors once wintered, with only genetics to guide them.

"It's a fantastic life cycle that captures the imagination of lots of people, I think," says Herb Wilson.

But as fantastic a life cycle as it is, it's also fragile. The monarch's migration takes them across much of North America, and they face threats at every stop along the way. Last year, the number of monarchs that over-wintered in Mexico reached an all-time low. Extreme weather is partly to blame, say scientists. And the use of chemical pesticides in the Midwest is killing the milkweeds that once dabbled fields of corn and wheat, leaving many monarchs homeless.

"So many agricultural areas are becoming monocultures now. And just habitat loss itself. So what used to be a field, perhaps, now is a big-box store of some sort," says Herb Wilson.

The issues surrounding the monarch's decline involve big questions about climate, economics and large scale agriculture. But back among the wildflower meadows of Swan Island, citizen scientists like Bob and Rose Marie Gobeil will keep searching, because even if they don't find a monarch, that tells us something, too.

"It doesn't look like we'll find many, if any, at all during the season. But we'll be back in a few weeks and try again. There's always hope."

Photo:  Courtesy Bob and Rose Marie Gobeil



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