When David Gagnon was growing up, he remembers hunting and fishing near Contentnea Creek, outside of Ayden. Decades later, retirement activities have brought the former engineer back to his old playground.
But today he’s using a different kind of bait with a whole different price in mind. Rather than hunting and fishing, this licensed North Carolina wildlife rehabilitator helps feed endangered monarch butterfly species.
Gagnon, who started growing plants for monarchs at his Greenville home in 2018, is starting to spread his wings. The result is Monarch Meadow, a butterfly habitat at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Contentnea Creek.
âThey have a fabulous 3 acre location,â Gagnon said of the grassy area, adjacent to one of the property’s four ponds along Contentnea Lane. âIt just seemed perfect. “
Monarch Meadow contains patches of milkweed and nectar plants needed by butterflies, whose numbers have been declining for a quarter of a century. The project was developed by John and Nancy Bray, founders of A Time for Science, which became one of two Pitt County branches of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science.
The site’s makeover plan began last fall after the Brays read an article in The Daily Reflector about how Gagnon and his wife, Sue, had turned their extra bedroom into a kind of nursery for the monarchs. With room in the 400-acre outdoor learning center near Grifton, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences at Contentnea Creek was ready to welcome butterflies preparing for their flight to Mexico.
âIt’s fascinating and so awesome what came out of this article,â said Sue, adding that the couple had received calls from other monarch enthusiasts in eastern North Carolina. “It’s so exciting.”
Monarchs need all the publicity they can get. Known for their unique migration pattern, butterflies have been study candidates for endangered species law for years. The insect was determined by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in December 2020 to justify a list of endangered or threatened species, but it was not listed because other species were considered to have more urgent circumstances.
The orange-winged creature, whose frame is outlined in black with white dots, cannot resist the cold and travels up to 3,000 miles to reach its winter home in Mexico. It is the only butterfly known to migrate back and forth like birds do.
According to the results of the World Wildlife Fund’s annual population report 2020-21, monarchs of eastern North America covered about 5 acres of forest cover in Mexico last winter, 2 acres less than ‘in 2020. Experts say the current number is around one. -thirds of what is necessary to support their population and its continental migration.
To help counter this, environmentalists recommend planting milkweed, the only plant that gives monarchs a place to lay their eggs and provides food for the larvae.
Nancy Bray started growing milkweed about four years ago in her vegetable garden, which her husband likes to call âMother Nature’s Parkâ.
âI had heard that farmers plowed them just because they are so ugly,â she said of the plants, which can be toxic to livestock and other animals. “They are beautiful, absolutely beautiful, and they are covered with bees and butterflies.”
This summer, milkweed plants are spreading beyond her garden to dozens of plots where they mingle with bushes, butterflies, zinnias, marigolds and pink coneflowers. A kind of “living laboratory”, the plots will be separated by narrow walkways so that students attending the summer science camps, as well as other visitors, can observe monarchs and other pollinators up close.
âI was just imagining a giant field of nectar plants and milkweed,â said Gagnon. “But they wanted it to be more interactive, educational.”
Dozens of 8ft by 8ft plots were created during the first two phases of Monarch Meadow, which are nearing completion. A third phase is planned in the form of an open wildflower meadow.
âWe had used it (the property) as an example of a prairie, but it’s a bit small,â John said. âIt was just a meadow we had to mow. It’s going to take more maintenance than just mowing, but we could get science projects out of it. We have support. We have the interest of the community.
The Brays hope the property will be added to the U.S. list of monarch fishing stations, where the butterflies can eat, breed and migrate.
âIt’s almost like you’re going somewhere like New England, you expect a gas station every 10 miles,â Gagnon said. âAnyone can plant zinnias and flowers just for gas, and nurseries are milkweed. They need it all along the way.
Gagnon grew hundreds of plants to supply the new bus station, starting with the seeds grown inside and outside his home in the Planter’s Trail neighborhood of Greenville. He started using grow lights three months ago to feed everything from nectar plants to common milkweed, which he grows in pots due to its invasive nature. Now he delivers plants to Monarch Meadow, where he transplants them to different plots.
âIt’s a good thing that I grew up working in a tobacco field,â he said as he dug a hole for a transplant earlier this week, as temperatures rose above 90 degrees.
âI had them (planted) here for three years myself,â said Gagnon. âThese are the same steps. Just multiply it by 10.
Able to lay hundreds of eggs over a period of a few weeks, monarchs release each tiny egg under the bottom of a milkweed leaf. Within five days, the caterpillar eats its way and begins to feed on milkweed. But fully formed monarchs need nectar.
âShe will come in,â Gagnon said of the adult female monarch, âand if you don’t have something to eat for her, she will leave because she is hungry and she will go get flowers.â
Gagnon expects Monarch Meadow to produce abundant food for the monarchs and their offspring.
âThey’re going to have a milkweed forest at some point,â he said. “If people call and say, ‘I planted a milkweed plant but I haven’t planted enough and I have 15 caterpillars that are gnawing the stems all the way to the trunk,’ I tell them, ‘Bring it on. them here. We have plenty.
“It will be like a caterpillar rehabilitation center, a place to go and finish their cycle.”
Over the past three years, the Gagnon have released nearly 300 monarchs from eggs that were laid on milkweed plants in their backyards. But unlike the caterpillars that complete their transformations in the comfort of the Gagnon’s home, those at Monarch Meadow are likely to have more rustic accommodations.
âHe’s not (bringing them here),â Sue said in an interview. âThe planting, the seeds, all the milkweed is nothing compared to what it is from August to September with the eggs or the caterpillars and the pupae. It’s just nonstop.
While most Monarch Meadow caterpillars will be allowed to stay outdoors, Nancy is willing to breed a few indoors to protect them from predators and educate visitors.
âAt first it bothered me to keep things that I thought should be free in a cage,â she said. âThen I learned that 5% live because they have so many predators. “
Gagnon considers the intervention as not only acceptable but necessary given the fact that habitat loss and the use of pesticides are among the contributors to the decline of the species.
“I don’t feel too bad about the man getting involved in this because it was the man who put them in this situation in the first place,” he said. âWe must therefore intervene.
For more information on Monarch Meadow or to sponsor a Land in Butterfly Habitat at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Contentnea Creek, visit atimeforscience.org/monarch-meadows.