Monarch Project An Effort To Help Reverse The Butterfly's Decline

“Got Milkweed?”

Community members will receive milkweed plants at a tutorial August 2 on how to raise monarch butterflies in one’s own home at the Waquoit Congregational Church Parish Hall from 10 o’clock to noon. The event is part of the continuing efforts of the Monarch Project of Cape Cod.

The Monarch Project of Cape Cod was established earlier this year to encourage the continuation of the monarch butterfly’s migration to the north, and in particular, Cape Cod. The number of monarchs that migrate to the Cape in the summer has plummeted in recent years.

Each year, monarch butterflies migrate from the northern regions of the United States and Canada to the warmth of Mexico for the winter, entering a state of semi-hibernation, during which they hang off fir trees and cease mating.

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The monarchs awaken in April to make the 3,000-mile journey back to the North, cycling through multiple generations before reaching the Cape for the summer months.

Paul Rifkin of Cotuit, co-owner of Moonakis Cafe in Waquoit, founded the Monarch Project this past April. A self-described hippie, Mr. Rifkin said he has been passionate about the monarch butterfly since his young adult years, when he lived in California and spent a lot of time in nature.

In 2004, Mr. Rifkin and Ellen Mycock traveled on horseback into the mountains of Michoacán, Mexico, a mountainous region that is known to host the migratory butterflies.

Mr. Rifkin said that after an hour of riding, the couple began to see a few butterflies. As they rose higher, they were surrounded by hundreds of monarchs. At the summit, Mr. Rifkin said, “you couldn’t see the sky for all the butterflies.”

In recent years, however, the monarch population has plummeted.

“It used to be that I could go to South Cape Beach and see hundreds of them, and my camera and I would be smiling...Now you’re lucky to see a few,” Mr. Rifkin said.

Mr. Rifkin was moved to start the Monarch Project of Cape Cod, in hopes of bringing the monarch butterflies back to the Cape. Mr. Rifkin has partnered with the Reverend Nell Fields at the Waquoit Congregational Church to organize and fund the initiative.

Mr. Rifkin said that many factors have contributed to the rapid decrease in monarch butterflies, such as deforestation in Mexico and increased development of meadow areas. The problem that the Monarch Project is tackling, however, is the lack of milkweed plants in the area.

Milkweed is a vital resource to the monarch butterfly. Female monarchs lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves, and the monarch caterpillars eat the milkweed leaves when they hatch. Milkweed is the only plant that monarchs will use for these purposes.

Mr. Rifkin said that milkweed plants are no longer abundant on the Cape, due to widespread use of pesticides and the disappearance of open field habitats.

Nationally, the decrease in milkweed plants has been exacerbated by government-subsidized farmers using strong pesticides, lethal to wildflowers and milkweed, to raise genetically modified corn for ethanol production, Mr. Rifkin said.

The Monarch Project of Cape Cod has been giving out free bundles of milkweed seeds to community members to combat this trend, asking people to plant the seeds all over the Cape.

Since the project’s start in April, the Monarch Project has given out 500,000 seeds.

The Monarch Project has partnered with local groups to promote the seed-planting initiative, working with Coonamessett Farm, the Falmouth Farmers Market, and the Barnstable Land Trust. The Monarch Project has also connected with Falmouth Public Schools, giving away seeds to teachers who want to incorporate the monarch’s plight into their classroom activities.

Mr. Rifkin said that the project has found a presence in “every town on Cape, one way or another.” The project has mailed milkweed seeds as far as the Boston area.

“There are many people who think the monarch is the most beautiful insect or animal in the world, which is my view of it,” Mr. Rifkin said. Because of this widely held view, he said that the project has had a strong start.

Although originally funded out of pocket by Mr. Rifkin, the team has received so many donations that they have not only been able to buy more seeds, but have also purchased milkweed plugs, one-year-old plants that can be planted in the wild and used immediately by butterflies.

Planting season has passed, but Mr. Rifkin said the Monarch Project team will continue to plant in the fall.

A tutorial on how to raise monarch butterflies in one’s own home will take place tomorrow morning, August 1,  from 10 to noon at the Waquoit Congregational Church parish hall.

Free butterfly eggs and milkweed will be offered to attendees, and topics will include how to identify milkweed, build a butterfly cage, and keep caterpillars healthy until spring.

Mr. Rifkin and the Monarch Project team invite people of all ages to attend the informational session.

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