The monarch butterfly engenders a protective passion in many. Take retired Army Col. Michael McFarlin, who unwittingly kicked off a crusade to conserve Delaware’s diminishing patches of milkweed and monarch larva food by parking in the path of roadside mowers.
The Vietnam veteran recalled monarchs being “as plentiful as mosquitoes” when he was growing up in Minnesota. “I just took it for granted we’d always have monarchs,” says McFarlin, who noted their scarcity after moving to Milton several years ago. His anger ignited watching the monarch caterpillars’ only source of food being needlessly razed.
“My wife finally said to me, ‘You need to do something about it, or just get over it,’” he recalls.
So, he did.
McFarlin’s perseverance led him to Darin Callaway, the roadside environmental program administrator for the Delaware Department of Transportation. Together they created the Monarch Highway Habitat Project, through which McFarlin and fellow volunteers help DelDOT identify areas that can be removed from regular mowing.
Meanwhile, McFarlin and habitat stewards from Abbott’s Mill Nature Center comb the spots weekly during monarch breeding season, counting eggs, larvae and butterflies. They report the data to the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, which collects observations from across the country.
Ten no-mow sites have been identified in Sussex County, and McFarlin is looking to expand with the help of more volunteers.
For his work, McFarlin was honored with a 2019 Governor’s Outstanding Volunteer Award.
Callaway says the project is taking DelDOT’s Enhancing Delaware Highways initiative to new levels.
“Our program tries to find that balance of what we need to do to keep our roads safe and what we can do to promote native habitats,” says Callaway, noting that the state is also seeding areas for pollinators. “Our hope is to take enough acreage out of mowing that we don’t have anymore to remove.”
Monarchs need all the help they can get. Their population has plunged by 90 percent during the past two decades, to the point where they’re being assessed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Pesticides, climate change and loss of habitat threaten the iconic butterfly, legendary for its annual 3,000-mile migration from Canada to Mexico.
The good news, at least for the species’ Eastern cohort, is that their counts are improving. Monarchs west of the Rockies, which overwinter along the California coast and into Mexico, aren’t faring as well.
In Delaware, McFarlin’s passion is shared by enthusiasts who nurture butterfly habitats large and small and help rear the colorful beauties to adulthood.
Nancy Huebner, a nurse and singer/songwriter from Pike Creek, admits to her own run-ins with mowers on what used to be a nearby golf course. She tries to get ahead of them and save whatever eggs and caterpillars she can find, transferring them to milkweed she grows outside her townhome.
Watching the caterpillars transform “gives you this deep respect for nature,” says Huebner, who doesn’t recall seeing butterflies growing up in Philadelphia.
Likewise, Kathryn McCann, a retiree from Hockessin, began rearing monarchs as part of Mt. Cuba Center’s drive for local communities to create healthy ecosystems.
“It forces you to pay attention to something you would never pay attention to—the cycle of life and the ecosystem,” she says. “As you delve into it, you realize what an incredible gift it is.”
Suzanne Herel is a freelance writer and amateur naturalist. Learn more about monarchs at her exhibit, Monarch Magic, at the Delaware Museum of Natural History through May 25. To volunteer with the Monarch Highway Habitat Project, contact Michael McFarlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published as “The Butterfly Effect” in the May 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.