Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 15, 2013

Local man looks out for butterflies

Special to the Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Norm Brown is concerned about monarch butterflies.

Every year, he raises them at his home at the Village at Bay Ridge Senior Living Community in Traverse City in an effort to spread the word about the need for conservation.

“The monarch population has been in a constant decline,” he said. “I always feel that we shouldn’t lose any species if we can do something to save it. The monarchs are in a position where they need our help.”

Brown contends overwintering monarch population for 2012-2013 was the smallest on record. A number of factors contributed to the decline, but one of the biggest problems is the decrease of milkweed plants — the exclusive food source for monarch larvae.

Widespread use of herbicides along roadsides and farmland, especially in the Corn Belt, is a big factor, he said.

Each fall, hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies migrate from the U.S. and Canada to mountains in central Mexico where they spend the winter months. Brown said it takes four generations of monarchs to make it that distance and without milkweeds in their breeding areas monarchs would not be able to survive.

“They have a long and difficult journey. The fourth-generation monarchs travel nearly 3,000 miles to make it to Mexico,” he said.

Brown would like others to get involved in developing Monarch Way Stations: plantings of milkweeds and other nectar-producing plants in their gardens.

“It’s like the old stage coach days where people stopped for water, food and rest. Areas where milkweed thrive are areas where monarchs can stop and get strength to travel on their journey,” he said. “I think we can make up for the losses of habitat by people planting milkweed in their gardens.”

Brown and his wife Audrey became interested in helping the monarchs when they attended a program at the Kingsley Public Library. The class taught them the process of tagging monarchs and they found it so interesting, they immediately wanted to get involved.

“We got hooked right away,” he said. “You get kind of excited about these creatures.”

They went online and ordered a set of larvae through the Monarch Watch Program -- -- they’ve raised monarchs the past three years, and share the experience with their neighbors.

For the past two years, they’ve chosen to raise monarchs inside the Memory Care section of the Assisted Living Center.

“We decided that the Memory Care Center was the most important place to have them. Every day people come by and take a look for an hour or so, just watching,” he said.

Each year, in early September, he and Audrey tag and release the monarchs while residents watch. Karen Bell, Life Enrichment Coordinator at the Assisted Living Center, can’t say enough about the excitement monarchs have brought to their facility.

“Everyone is talking about the butterflies. It’s spectacular.” she said.

“We have a 97-year-old woman who makes the effort to walk from the other side of the building every single day to watch them and we have a group of women who check on them every night after dinner,” she said. “We all have the love of nature inside of us and that wonder doesn’t go away. This really creates moments of joy for our residents.”

Brown is pleased. The World War II Veteran and Michigan State University graduate is no stranger to conservation efforts. He developed the first watershed program in Michigan and was a longtime County Extension Agent, working in Kalkaska, Manistee, Saginaw, and Nebraska. He also worked to build the first extension program in Nigeria and served as the assistant director for the Michigan Department of Agriculture.

These days, he and Audrey are busy educating people about monarchs and enlivening an entire senior community in the process.

“I hope to see more and more people getting involved in helping the monarchs,” he said. “It’s not too late to make a difference.”