Will Michigan honor monarchs?

Ilse Gebhard, a retired chemist from Kalamazoo, is part of a Michigan campaign to protect the monarch butterfly and designate it as the official state insect for Michigan.
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monarch butterfly on flower

Maine has its honeybee. Massachusetts has its ladybug. Mississippi, the Magnolia state, has two state insects: the firefly and ladybug. Michigan has no state insect. It has a state fish, the brook trout; a state bird, the robin; even a state fossil, the mastodon, unlikely as that may be. 

Ilse Gebhard, a retired chemist from Kalamazoo, hopes that will change. She is part of a Michigan campaign to protect the monarch butterfly. She and others have expressed support for Michigan Senate Bill 812, introduced in February 2016 by Sen. Jim Marleau, R-Lake Orion. It designates the monarch as Michigan’s official state insect. 

michigan berries growing wild“Designating it will not give it any extra protection, like threatened or endangered status, Gebhard said. “But it is a way to make people more aware of it and its conservation needs. They may want to protect it because it is the state symbol.” 

Gebhard, 76, maintains a butterfly garden at her home. Tending to it and analyzing the results is her way of helping monarchs and other pollinators. Scientists now say the monarch could face extinction in 20 years. Its numbers have plummeted, dropping from a billion seen on its winter grounds in 1996-97 to just 35 million in 2013-14. 

The reasons are varied, from habitat loss in Mexico on the preserves where it winters, to storms and drought conditions that decimate populations. Farmers also are using more herbicides that kill milkweed, monarchs’ sole food source. Adult monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed. The young caterpillars emerge and eat the plant to survive. If it disappears, so do monarch butterflies. 

monarch butterfly caterpillar

Gebhard plants native milkweed, which is free from pesticides. Ever a scientist, she tallies the number of butterflies that arrive and lay their eggs in her garden, then counts the butterflies that develop from the caterpillars that emerge. She uploads her data to Monarch Watch, an international citizen science project (monarchwatch.org).

The nonprofit program at the University of Kansas grew out of research started in 1937 by Canadian zoologist Fred Urquhart, who identified monarch butterfly migration routes and came to realize that migrations span multiple generations.

One of the America’s best-known butterflies, the monarch is a beautiful example of living art — and a marvel given its ability to migrate thousands of miles to wintering grounds in Mexico. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposed listing the eastern monarch population as a threatened species in 2014. The agency is reviewing data to determine if it is warranted. 

In Michigan, more than 1,300 people have signed an online petition to “Say Yes to the Monarch as our Official State Insect” (bit.ly/monarchpetition).

Marleau said Michigan is one of only three states without a state insect. Seven states already list the monarch. 

Ilse Gebhard Michigan conservationist

“It’s time to remedy that and designate the monarch butterfly with that honor,” Marleau said in February. His bill has been referred to the Senate Government Operations Committee.

 

No action has been taken, as of this writing, but if Gebhard and others have their way, that could soon change.

Howard Meyerson is an award winning writer and managing editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.

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