The North Carolina mountains are a corridor along the “Butterfly Highway,” an annual
migration route of monarch butterflies from the eastern United States and Canada to
Mexico, with Western Carolina University a frequent stop along the way.
“The monarchs are on the move already through our area – and will increase in numbers over the next several weeks,” said Jim Costa, executive
director of WCU’s Highlands Biological Station and professor of evolutionary biology. Every fall, monarchs will cover thousands of
miles to warmer climes for the winter, he said. The distinctive butterflies, with
orange wings edged in black dotted by white spots, travel to locations they haven’t
visited in their lifetimes.
After the young of an overwintering population matures in a small, mountainous area
of Michoacan, Mexico, northern migrations begin in the spring and summer. The trip
to the U.S and Canada, unlike the fall migration, will take several generations to
complete. Vital for monarch survival and multigenerational development is the milkweed,
a perennial often eradicated from lawns and gardens.
WCU, however, has areas across the Cullowhee campus and at the botanical gardens of
the Highlands Biological Station set aside for milkweed (the only plant monarch caterpillars
eat) and other native plants to flourish.
“We have spots across campus that we tend by, well, not really tending that much at
all, at least in terms of mowing or weed-eating,” said Vicky Heatherly, an agriculture
and horticulture specialist with university Facilities Management. “We plant milkweed
specifically to attract monarch butterflies and it benefits other species, too. Other
insects feed on it and it’s the only thing that provides habitat for monarchs to lay
eggs, develop into caterpillars to chrysalids and then emerge as a butterfly. Plus,
having native plants supports birds and other species.
“It may look messy at times, but it is nature at its best,” Heatherly said. “It’s
another thing that makes Western special and why I love working here.”
Roger Turk, grounds superintendent for Facilities Management, said the native plant
habitats and flowering accent areas, no matter how small, serve multiple functions
for the university’s landscape. “Our greenhouse staff propagates and plants thousands
of annuals and perennials each year to be installed on campus. They also install many native
and other flowering shrubs for landscape projects,” Turk said. “All those plants are
huge attractors for pollinators, habitat for numerous species and having these ‘natural
occurrence areas’ helps stabilize and reinforce the overall environmental setting.
There is also a visual appeal, too. I always tell the grounds staff when it comes
to how the campus looks, that we have one chance to make a good first impression,
and that chance comes 365 days a year.”
For educators, the annual migration is an opportunity for instruction with living
examples and natural variables. Recent attention has been shown to a reserved patch
of milkweed alongside the A.K. Hinds University Center, where monarchs, caterpillars
and cocoons have been observed.
“Students connect better when they can see and experience things for themselves, and
how cool is it that 100 or so butterflies, a species that is being considered for
the endangered species list, are going to emerge and head to the same spot in Mexico
to join other monarchs from all across North America and overwinter? All because a
small, 3-foot square patch of milkweed was planted,” said Aimee Rockhill, assistant professor of natural resource conservation and management.
Monarchs also are a good indicator of the overall environment, locally and globally.
“When we study the natural world, we can often times infer how well an ecosystem is
functioning based on the diversity of species we observe,” said Jane Dell, assistant
professor of geosciences and natural resources. “Branching out even more to insects in general, they represent the most species rich
group of animals across the globe with incredibly important roles in regulating ecosystem
vigor. Especially here in the biodiverse region of Southern Appalachia, when we see
declines in the diversity of insects, we know that there are issues happening that
are affecting ecological function. Think about road trips you went on as a child – how often did you have to stop and wash off the windshield due to insects? Now reflect
upon a more recent road trip. Most likely you didn’t even have to use the windshield
wiper once to clear off the insects. This is because we are in the midst of a global
insect decline. The monarch is just another example of species experiencing human-caused
Observing monarchs also demonstrates how conservation and habitat management work.
“I can use the material when we talk about support for wildlife conservation later
in the semester. Some incentive programs for monarch conservation in North Carolina
require a couple acres of land to be considered for funding and support,” Rockhill
said. “Given that a majority of the lands in the state are privately owned, I think
this is a good teachable moment to discuss incentive programs and assess what works
and what does not. WCU’s little monarch population is a great example of how individual
landowners can make an impact by planting patches of milkweed to support monarch conservation.”
Pre-pandemic, students from Mountain View Intermediate School in Macon County would work with Jason Love, associate director of Highlands Biological Station, in a “Migration Celebration”
each year to tag and release migrating monarchs as part of a project led by the University
of Kansas. “There seems to be a growing recognition by the general public of the importance of
native plants for native wildlife, including insects,” he said. “While pollinator
gardens are great, I think we sometimes forget the roles that plants play in acting
as host plants for many insects, the monarch and the milkweed being prime examples.”
Besides being beautiful, intriguing and photo-worthy, monarchs and the more than 5,000
related species of moths and butterflies also shaped the evolution of plants and continue
to benefit mankind. “Many caterpillars are herbivorous, meaning they eat plants,”
Dell said. “Because plants can’t get up and run away from predators, they have evolved
mechanisms to defend themselves against herbivores. The compounds created in defense
have been widely utilized by humans. From medicinal products to latex, or black pepper
to the tannins that flavor red wine, we can thank our herbivore friends for helping
to create these useful and tasty items.”