Archive for August, 2015

Monarch Rescue


Nancy and I found the phone message light blinking in the kitchen after returning from a 30-mile bike ride. The message was from friend, Sarah. She was scrambling to solicit folks to collect monarch butterfly larvae (caterpillars) that were in danger of being harvested in a combine. She explained that a nursery owned by Minnesota Native Landscapes was going to combine a three-acre field of swamp milkweed pods within 24 hours and that the milkweeds in the field held many monarch larvae.

According to their website, Minnesota Native Landscapes is a “full service ecological restoration services company that designs and installs naturalized landscape features that are biologically diverse, ecologically and historically accurate and aesthetically pleasing for corporate, municipal and private landowners.”

Within two hours of Sarah’s recruiting call, we pulled into the nursery.  We were met by the affable nursery production manager, Keith Fredrick, who drove us to one of the back fields on the 80-acre nursery. As we drove he pointed out various plots of native plants being cultivated. Some of the plants are grown for direct transplanting and others, like the milkweeds, are grown for seed production.

The deep purple of a back corner field caught my eye. It was meadow blazing star (Liatris ligulistylis). Of the five species of blazing star in Minnesota, this one is the ultimate monarch butterfly magnet, a key nectar producer for adult butterflies.

Keith went on to explain that given all the recent publicity on monarchs and other pollinators, there has been a surge of interest in the public to procure milkweed seed. He added that next year this nursery will likely increase  production of various milkweed species to try and meet the demand.  He also remarked that the general public is not aware that there are several species of milkweed.

My favorite of the local milkweeds is the aptly named, butterfly weed in its flaming orange color. But on this day our focus would be on swamp milkweed.

Monarch butterflies can lay their eggs only on a milkweed plant. It doesn’t matter which species of milkweed, but it has to be a milkweed or nothing. The female is capable of laying about 300 eggs but she lays only one per plant to reduce feeding competition for the larvae.

I would argue that the monarch butterfly has snagged more media time this year than any other wild species in Minnesota, including the moose and walleye. Monarch populations have dropped 90% over the past 20 years.

In February of this year, the Center for Food Safety released an 80-page scientific report that made it clear that over the past two decades of increasing Roundup Ready crops, particularly corn and soybeans, in North America has nearly erased the sole source of food for the monarch butterfly. The dose of herbicides has made the genetically modified crops  “clean” of these supposed weed species. Sadly these chastised plants are the necessary nurseries for monarchs and other diverse insects.

Keith stopped the truck in front of the field. Very few of the broad rows of swamp milkweed were adorned with their characteristic pink flowers. Instead they bore the fruit, the slender pods, that would split and send their fluffy seeds to the winds if Keith waited too long to harvest them.

Soon Sarah and friend Vivian also showed up and we each slowly made our way, buckets in hand, down the rows looking for the monarch larvae. Within minutes our eyes were trained to pick  out the striped caterpillars in the foliage. We began to intersperse our conversation with exclamations of  “Got one here,” or “Here’s one!”

Delicately we removed the feeding larvae from the milkweed and set them in our buckets that were bedded with a thin layer of milkweed leaves.


For the first time in their short lives, many of the collected larvae were NOT eating but were climbing up the inside wall of our buckets. Normally these striped larvae don’t have to worry about escaping since they spend their two weeks as a caterpillar eating and only eating. The larvae go from being the size of a rice grain to nearly the size of a child’s little finger. During that span they will literally shed their skin five times to accommodate the rush of growth.

I recall reading about an entomologist who calculated that if an eight pound human baby had the same growth rate as a monarch larvae they would, after two weeks, be the size of a school bus!

Earlier in the summer, this field would have been producing monarch butterflies that could be the parents of the larvae we picked. The big difference between those June adult butterflies and these eventual butterflies, is that this late August-early September crop of monarchs will not be mating and producing eggs until next spring after a winter high in the mountains north of Mexico City.

In the earlier summer generations of monarchs, the reproductive organs  start to develop while they are larvae. The development is driven by the presence of a  juvenile hormone. But monarchs birthed in late summer have low levels of the juvenile hormone and they will remain low until the following spring. Only then does the overwintering monarch complete its sexual development. This delayed maturity is likely a strategy that conserves energy and makes it possible for them to direct their energies into migrating thousands of miles and then quietly overwintering.

By the time we finished our rescue efforts, the five of us had easily collected over 300 caterpillars.

Driving home, Nancy and I stopped on a back road near a healthy patch of the common showy milkweed and  relocated the larvae. We ambled down the shaggy ditch, setting one caterpillar at a time on its own milkweed plant.


It is humbling to believe that these pudgy little striped caterpillars contain the genetic material that will program  each monarch to lift off in less than a month and begin the long, dangerous flight to Mexico.

In comparison our 30-mile morning bike ride seems laughable.

Buena suerte amigos!! (Translation: Good luck friends!)

Quetico Heat Torches All Reason



I knew it was going to be a barnburner of a day on our first portage of the morning.

The bite of the wide leather straps on my shoulders tried my patience and perseverance as I carried the faded, heavy Duluth pack over a long portage. The sparse path led us up a long  grade and then descended a steeper slope towards a valley bottom. On this longest of our carries, I also carried a smaller pack on my chest with paddles in my hands.  The burden of the two packs sandwiching my torso combined with the drag of gravity on the rocky uphill climb tested my morning mettle.

Four friends and I were making our way by canoe and portage further north into Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. It might be considered treasonous to declare our preference for Quetico over the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) but the primary reasons are that the country is more remote, has far fewer paddlers, and offers better fishing.

Quetico, like the BWCAW, is roughly 1 million acres. We paddled north from the BWCAW to the isolated Quetico Ranger Station where we had to check in with our Remote Area Border Crossing permits and pay the required nightly fee to camp on Canadian Crown land. The lone park ranger stationed there shared that as of August 1, only 11,000 visitors have entered Quetico this summer. In recent years this Canadian wilderness area has averaged 20,000 visitors per year. In contrast, the BWCAW is visited by approximately 1 million visitors over the same period.

Our destination was a favorite lake. . . the name is hard to pronounce so I won’t even bother. We have etched many memories of quiet, remote campsites and quality fishing on this lake.  It had been about a half dozen years since any of us had been there so this time we chose a slightly different route to explore some new country.  With an additional six years on our aging bodies, why we chose a route that included a longer portage than our familiar route was questionable.

I think the heat hijacked common sense.

I tried to ignore the sinuous, slow stroll of sweat wending its way down my forehead, stinging my eyes. I distracted myself from the pain by making a mental list of plant species that I could identify as I shuffled along the portage trail. Luckily the path meandered under the shade of the boreal canopy. Here I found some relief from the task in the company of thick white cedars. The undergrowth of arching ferns, quartets of bunchberry leaves, blue bead lilies with their single stalk of porcelain-blue berries and wispy scouring rush plants reminded me of a dripping jungle.  It was humid and hot, so hot that the rocks that I stepped around and over were sweating.

While the rocks wore a sheen of moisture on them, it was not actually sweat but water vapor. At night the rocks cool down and then as they warm in hot morning sun, the water vapor on them condenses and resembles a glow of sweat.

The heat can initiate a madness that is unlike the anguish of a numbing cold encounter. Our escape from this boreal inferno was to languish repeatedly in the water. We stripped naked and launched in non-Olympian dives from exposed bedrock into the cooler lake waters.  Each time the pallid swimmer surfaced, he exhaled in bliss.

Portaging, paddling, fishing and swimming require energy and we found rest in our trio of hanging hammocks. It was so hot that we spent a fair amount of time napping and reading from our sleep swings. The heat drove us to our fabric berths so frequently that we feared they might wear out.


If it had not been for the pesky mosquitoes at dusk, we would have slept overnight in our hammocks. Driven to our tents, we laid on top of our sleeping bags rather than in them.

A few hot days later, as s we paddled back toward civilization, we had to yield the right of way on the lake to allow a swimming red squirrel pass in front of our canoe. Generally not considered an aquatic mammal,  the little rodent easily swam  across the 200-yard wide lake channel. Did it also enjoy the naked, cooling swim?


It was likely a young squirrel  dispersing  to new grounds.  As they age, some young squirrels explore areas outside their mother’s range. Juvenile squirrels must establish a territory and gather enough pine cones in their middens to survive the winter. Dispersing squirrels are highly vulnerable to predation and less than one quarter of them will survive their first year.

Leaving the squirrel behind us, we approached another portage. And before we loaded ourselves with gear, we all took long swigs of water in preparation for another walk among sweating rocks.