SULLIVAN — When hundreds of tiny Sullivan residents found themselves close to starvation, volunteers stepped in to save them.
The starving residents, all monarch caterpillars, were living in a milkweed patch on Route 1. Only empty stalks, devoid of leaves, remained of many of the milkweed plants, which provide the only food the caterpillars can eat.
On those plants that still had leaves, several monarch caterpillars were competing for food along with tussock moth caterpillars and a variety of milkweed beetles.
On Wednesday, Aug. 28, about 25 volunteers from Sullivan visited the patch for a rescue operation that began by using pink ribbon to mark where chrysalises hung. The ribbon helps volunteers avoid trampling the chrysalises, which are the form caterpillars take as they transform into butterflies. The volunteers relocated hundreds of caterpillars to milkweed elsewhere. Some volunteers took caterpillars home for rearing, said Sullivan Town Manager Rob Eaton.
A much smaller group, made up of about a half-dozen people, returned on Friday, Aug. 30, to continue their work, moving at least another 100 caterpillars.
Eaton said he was surprised by the number of caterpillars he saw in that milkweed patch.
“I knew there were a lot, but 100 quickly looked like 500,” he said.
Eaton learned about the situation from property owner Dave Legere. Legere had contacted the town after seeing online posts advising residents they could mark roadside areas containing monarch habitat so that they wouldn’t be mowed.
On Aug. 22, Eaton posted online that he was looking for volunteers willing to assist with monarch caterpillar relocation.
“By the time I got up the next morning, [the post] had reached 1,800 people,” he said. One prospective volunteer was even willing to drive down from Charleston, Penobscot County. Eaton said he told her she didn’t have to come because he had enough people and feared too many would mean unnecessarily trampling the milkweed and its inhabitants.
Working to save the caterpillars brought the volunteers together in a way Eaton said he hadn’t seen before.
“The monarchs were the most important thing,” he said, adding that when people help nature, they help each other. Helping the monarchs sets a good example.
“Sullivan cares,” Eaton said.
Milkweed patches in fields that are mowed each year are attractive to female monarchs looking to lay eggs, said Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch, a cooperative of students, teachers, volunteers and researchers based in Lawrence, Kansas. This is the most likely reason for monarch caterpillars to be found in such high numbers in some fields and not in others.
Maine’s ecosystem is another contributing factor.
“In Maine, you don’t have as many predators and parasites as you do in other places,” he said. Because of this, a higher percentage of monarchs survive in Maine than in other places.
Taylor said as of Tuesday, he had received three reports from Maine of large numbers of caterpillars concentrated in a single location, which took him somewhat by surprise. Monarch Watch relies on citizen scientists to report their observations nationwide and, unfortunately, not enough people from Maine are doing so.
Without that information, “it’s really hard for me to tell what’s going on,” he said.
Based on a lack of reports of monarch sightings earlier in the season, Taylor predicted the monarch population would be lower in the Northeast than in other parts of the country. However, that is not turning out to be the case.
Taylor urged Maine residents to report their observations to Journey North (journeynorth.org), a website run by the University of Wisconsin-Madison which tracks the annual monarch migrations to Mexico. Monarch Watch uses this data for analysis.
To learn more about monarchs, visit the Monarch Watch blog at monarchwatch.org/blog.