BERNARDSVILLE, NJ – Kathleen Palmer has been passionate about butterflies since 4th grade. At her home here in northern Somerset County, she has taken her interest in the insects up many notches since childhood.
Today, a section of her property is registered as a Monarch Waystation (Reg. #1111) with Monarch Watch, a non-profit environmental conservation, education and research program, dedicated to the study of the monarch butterfly, based at the University of Kansas.
“I grew up in a rural area in Michigan and loved going out to the fields to look for butterflies to bring home and study,” said Palmer. “I now have a fenced in wildflower garden where milkweed grows, which is native to the area. As the milkweed appeared, so did the monarch butterflies. That’s when I decided to start raising them again.” She began doing so in 2014.
There are currently over 18,679 Monarch Waystation habitats registered with Monarch Watch in North America today, including one at Duke Farms in Hillsborough.
Eastern monarch butterflies, which migrate every year to Mexico for the winter, have declined in population due to chemical fallout, climate change, the proliferation of GMO crops and loss of natural habitat due to development, as well as natural predators.
According to Monarchbutterflyusa.com, the reproduction cycle starts in early spring, when the females who already mated in Texas and Oklahoma lay their eggs here on milkweed, a plant native to New Jersey. The babies hatch, the mother dies, the larvae undergo metamorphosis, and the cycle begins again, producing four generations in total, two in New Jersey. The mature insects live only two to six weeks.
Palmer checks the milkweed in her butterfly garden for the tiny specks that are monarch eggs. She picks the whole leaf, which the caterpillar will need for nutrition, and raises each one in separate containers. She cleans the cages every day, adding new damp paper towel and new milkweed leaves that are washed and dried first to remove airborne fallout particles.
She feeds and nurtures her charges through all stages to maturity. Last year, she raised and released 195 monarch butterflies, each bearing an ID tag from Monarch Watch.
Palmer’s wildlife conservation efforts include speaking to environmental and civic groups and garden clubs. She has also started raising black swallowtail butterflies (New Jersey’s state butterfly) and helped a local Girl Scout troop build a butterfly garden at Ross Farm in Basking Ridge. Palmer, who owns Studio 7 Fine Art Gallery in Bernardsville, is active in the wider community, serving on the Somerset County Tourism Council. Groups interested in scheduling her presentation can reach her at (908) 963-0365.
Of her passion for butterfly conservation, Palmer said that, “The monarchs are like the canary in the coal mine; when they and the birds are gone, we are all in big trouble. I encourage everyone to cultivate gardens with pollen-rich plants without any harmful fertilizers or herbicides.”
Duke Farms, a leader in environmental conservation, holds a monarch education and repopulation program every summer, which includes butterfly raising and release, and offers workshops about the species for consumers and educators.
In addition, Duke Farms offers classes on pollination and the importance of planting native species of flora to attract the butterflies, especially milkweed, which offers the best nutrition for the caterpillars. Milkweed grows in a five-acre community garden and Monarch Waystation; the staff searches for and brings the eggs into a butterfly house to raise them as Palmer does. The butterflies are released from early August to early September, wearing Monarch Watch tags.
Offering hundreds of classes on a variety of environmental conservation topics, the organization also educates the public on the hazards of urbanization and climate change that have affected wildlife.
Fairview Farm Wildlife Preserve in Bedminster also welcomes butterflies in its extensive garden, which has approximately 30 species of mostly native flowers and plants that attract the pollinators, along with certain birds and bees, from May through October. In addition to monarchs, other butterfly species that stop to feed there are tiger and zebra swallowtail, hairstreaks, fritillaries, common buckeye, red admiral, pearl crescent, copper, skipper, sulphur, spring azure and eastern tailed blue, and American snout.
According to Lauren Theis, education and stewardship director, the buckeye and spring azures arrive first, followed by the swallowtails, monarchs and others. The organization offers programs focused on its bird and butterfly garden for the public.
More information about education and conservation programs at Duke Farms and Fairview Farm is available at www.visitsomersetnj.org and the county’s downloadable Destination Guide.