As the Mexican legend goes, ancestral spirits make an annual migration back to earth as Monarch butterflies. Their blood-orange-and-black-tipped wings flutter over the Sierra Madre Mountains, prepared to settle in until cold weather finally ceases in the Northern Hemisphere. (The Monarch symbolizes both life and death for the Mexican people, even earning a stake in Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead.)
Reality trumped legend when a moisture-bearing system with 20-degree temperatures moved through two major over-wintering sites back in January 2002, killing 500 million Monarchs in its wake.
That’s when the possibility of imminent extinction first occurred to Joyce Pearsall. In 2004, the Brevard resident, a former registered nurse, dove headfirst into a full-blown Monarch advocacy campaign.
As a volunteer conservation specialist with the University of Kentucky-based nonprofit Monarch Watch, Pearsall planted swamp milkweed seedlings and tagged wings with pinky-nail-size identification stickers (The nonprofit’s mission is to advocate for the species, and also to sponsor a variety of educational programs.)
“Let’s think about coal miners and canaries,” she says. “Monarchs are an indicator of the environment. What affects the Monarchs affects us.”
Just like honeybees, Monarchs pollinate crops and are affected by high-tech insecticides such as neonicotinoids, a chemical used to kill aphids and root-feeding grubs. The advent of similar products, coupled with the 2002 weather system, has led to a 90-percent population decline over the last 20 years.
Though the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and other allies lobbied to protect the butterfly as a “threatened” species back in August 2014, their efforts, as described in a memo released by the CFS this March, appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
Pearsall says that many nurseries even use pesticides on the Monarch’s bread and butter: milkweed. As the insect’s only food source, this herbaceous perennial helps drive the circle of life, especially during migration. Running a reproductive relay race, female Monarchs depart from Mexico in late February. After finding a milkweed plant, most often in the Midwest, they lay their larvae and die, only for the chrysalis to spawn the next generation one month later. The cycle continues three or four times until they reach the Northern United States and Canada.
Many of the remaining 55 million Monarchs, affectionately nicknamed “black veined browns,” straggle up the East Coast, finding their way into one of the 389 milkweed havens in North Carolina. Pearsall, also an active volunteer with Transylvania County’s Extension Master Gardener program, works closely on these gardens-turned-egg-warehouses, either officially registering the waystation for Monarch Watch or digging around in the dirt.
She and other Brevard locals headed the Pisgah National Forest ranger station project, planting several varieties of milkweed such as “swamp” and “poke.” According to Pearsall, planting organically grown milkweed seedlings is the only way to bolster butterfly populations. That, and ceasing to use pesticides.
She will present two talks in April on the status of the Monarch, at the Asheville Outdoor Living Expo at the WNC Ag Center on April 23 and at the Anne Elizabeth Suratt Nature Center at Walnut Creek Preserve in Lake Lure on April 30.
“It’s a balancing act — accommodating both our needs and the Monarch’s,” she says, reflecting on a stint of termites that forced even her to use pesticides. “But it’s a matter of being aware of what we’re breathing, touching, and consuming.”
For more information about Joyce Pearsall’s April 23 talk at the Asheville Outdoor Living Expo (at the WNC Ag Center) visit www.ashevilleoutdoorliving.com. For information about her April 30 appearance at Walnut Creek Preserve, call 828-625-1122. Visit www.monarchwatch.org to learn more about Monarch Watch.