Butterfly festival encourages preservation

  • Helping the monarch butterfly was the centerpiece of a celebration at the fifth annual Monarch Festival at Petals in Pines on Saturday. David Brooks—Monitor staff

  • From left: Viva, 5, and Moxie, 6, Macleod of Manchester admire butterfly-friendly plants at Petals in the Pines in Canterbury on Saturday.

  • The 5th annual Monarch Festival at Petals in the Pines in Canterbury, Sept. 9, 2017. David Brooks—Monitor staff

  • Donna Miller, co-owner of Petals in the Pines in Canterbury, was giving away seeds for milkweed, the only plant that monarch caterpillars eat, at the 5th annual Monarch Festival, Sept. 9, 2017. David Brooks—Monitor staff

  • The 5th annual Monarch Festival at Petals in the Pines in Canterbury. David Brooks—Monitor staff

  • A monarch butterfly larvae grows inside a container at the 5th annual Monarch Festival at Petals in the Pines in Canterbury, Sept. 9, 2017. David Brooks—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Saturday, September 09, 2017

In the world of conservation, there is an important concept known as the charismatic fauna. These are the living things that everybody loves – pandas, whales, loons, salmon – which can be used to build public support for environmental work that helps many living things.

For insects, the holder of the charismatic crown is the monarch butterfly, as testified by the dozens of cars that squeezed along narrow Baptist Road on Saturday morning to attend Petals in the Pine’s fifth annual Monarch Festival. The event used the beautiful butterfly with its amazing life story to lure folks into actions that might help many insects.

“If you help one, you help the others,” said Donna Miller, owner of Petals in the Pine in Canterbury, talking about actions like planting pollinator gardens and avoiding certain pesticides. “A lot of the issues are inter-related.”

The festival also encourages monarch-specific acts, most notably encouraging the tall, inelegant plant known as milkweed for the milky texture of its seed pods. As the name implies, it has long been regarded as a weed to be eradicated, but it is the monarch caterpillar’s only food source and is vital to its preservation. Miller was even giving out packets of milkweed seeds.

Monarch populations are facing a long-term decline due largely to destruction of habitat along their enormous migration route, but they still go up and down. This is an up year for New Hampshire, with monarch caterpillars and butterflies showing up in good numbers for the first time since 2012.

“People I’ve never met come up and tell me, I’ve got 30 of them at my house!” Miller said.

The butterflies themselves were not always visible during the festival – when it’s cloudy they tend to retreat to trees or bushes – but enthusiasm was. That was especially true during the Parade of Wings, when a dozen little girls donned pretend butterfly wings and made their way past beds of pollinator-friendly plants filling the garden. Some boys were there as butterfly fans, but none wanted to be winged.

Among those participating in the parade and the enjoyment were sisters Viva, 5, and Moxie, 6, bought by their parents, Andy and Felicia Macleod from Manchester.

“This place is great,” Andy Macleod said as he watched the two girls chase a grasshopper, asters and sunflowers towering over their heads. This was the family’s first visit here, following recommendation from a friend.

As for the appeal of the monarch over other butterflies – even the karner blue, which is New Hampshire’s state butterfly – the astonishing life story may make the difference.

Indeed, the life cycle of the monarch is amazing, even beyond the caterpillar-to-crysallis-to-flying-insect metamorphosis of butterflies. Adult monarchs from here fly straight to central Mexico, where they over-winter in numbers so vast that they’re not counted as individuals but for the number of acres of trees they fill. The return journey takes at least three generations: They fly north to Texas, breed and die; their children fly to mid-Atlantic states, breed and die; their grandchildren, or perhaps even great-grandchildren, finally make it back here. How individuals remember where to go over multiple generations is not well understood.

“Yes, they’re pretty, but I really think it’s the migration that makes the difference,” said Ruth Smith of Canterbury, who described herself as an unofficial friend of Petals in the Pines. “People are just blown away by this fragile thing flying 2,000 or 3,000 miles.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)