The monarch butterfly needs help.
Pollinators such as bees and butterflies are struggling, and scientists blame habitat loss and increased pesticide use. But monarchs are in full-on decline. The monarchs migrate to Mexico each fall, but the number wintering there has decreased by 90 percent over the past 20 years.
The Seneca Park Zoo has attacked the habitat side of the problem for over a decade through its Butterfly Beltway project, working with institutions, schools, and gardeners to establish butterfly gardens. Now, it's partnering with the State Department of Transportation to expand the program.
The focus of the partnerships is milkweed, a native plant that is crucial to monarchs, since their caterpillars live, mature, and feed on it. The plant often grows along New York's highways, but the DOT usually mows it down in the late summer or early fall, before the seed pods are ready for dispersal and before the monarchs migrate, says Tom Snyder, the zoo's director of programming and conservation action.
The zoo and the DOT will try a different approach on a six-mile stretch of I-390 near Mt. Morris this year. The state will wait an extra few weeks to mow the roadsides, which will let the seed pods mature. Mowing them at that point will actually help spread the seeds, Snyder says, and will provide zoo volunteers a chance to pick some mature pods for planting.
The zoo will also install educational signs at a nearby rest stop to let people know about the importance of milkweed, and to encourage them to plant butterfly-friendly plants, says Pamela Reed Sanchez, executive director of the Seneca Park Zoo Society.
"It's all about encouraging people to act on their own," she says.