Meet cover gal and butterfly advocate Barb Agnew who's working to save migrating monarchs in her spare time.
Cover gal Barb Agnew of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, is off to a flying start, saving the homes of migrating monarchs. Barb told Country Woman about her work as a butterfly advocate.
CW: How did you develop your enthusiasm for the environment?
Barb: I loved all nature as a child. Growing up in the suburbs, I was keenly aware of rural land around us turning to pavement at a scary pace. I’d search the foundations of torn-down farmhouses for perennials and transplant them in our yard.
I was also intrigued with bugs. Once I brought cocoons in during winter, tucked them into my bureau and forgot about them—until they hatched and moths flew out of the drawer! My brother told his friends I had bats in my bedroom.
CW: Why did monarch butterflies, in particular, capture your imagination?
Barb: Monarchs are unique among all butterflies for the way they migrate. Each fall, hundreds of millions from the U.S. and Canada fly to an overwintering site in central Mexico—some up to 3,000 miles. About three months later, they start the journey back to their fair-weather homes. (Read more about this amazing journey, opposite.)
I’m fortunate to live near a rare habitat with just the right kinds of plants, landscape and climate where monarchs thrive. They lay their eggs there and also use it as a way station to fuel up for their arduous trip south, dining on nectar plants like boneset, goldenrod and aster.
Their orange-and-black wings remind me of fluttering stained-glass windows.
CW: What inspired you to come to the rescue of monarchs?
Barb: I was concerned when our county began developing the open land that’s long been a prime roosting site for monarchs. Preparing for a building project, the county regraded hundreds of acres, which removed the plants needed to support the butterflies.
Before things went too far, I identified a 1.25-mile corridor that I knew included two vital monarch roosting spots. Using a weed whip, I carved out a simple trail along the outskirts of the construction fences and dreamed up ways to attract people there for some monarch watching.
I brought several friends, and word spread. More and more people came to take walks through the oak grove and meadows. We christened the Monarch Trail five years ago, and nature lovers began volunteering to maintain it.
CW: What are some of your successes in restoring the monarch habitat?
Barb: A strong group of supporters has formed the Friends of the Monarch Trail. Our major project has been writing letters to officials and attending public meetings on open land development.
This was enough to convince our county board to adopt a plan to preserve the precious sliver along the Monarch Trail that the butterflies need to repopulate.
To keep interest alive, I’ve planned tours and fundraisers along the trail. Every September, when monarch migration starts here, I give tours to school and youth groups, garden and photography clubs, churches and environmental organizations. Seeing the clouds of monarchs beginning their journey makes an impact. So does hearing that the National Wildlife Federation has declared monarch migration an endangered phenomenon.
CW: How do you combine your love of nature and conservation with your career?
Barb: I’ve worked with flowers professionally for 29 years and now own Barb and Dick’s Wildflower Florists, with my friend and business partner, Dick Hansen. As the name suggests, our designs look as if they’re fresh from the field.
A couple of years ago, I opened a new wing in our shop, the Butterfly Store. We sell nets, enclosures, books about butterflies and host plants for rearing them, and gifts and photography with a butterfly theme.
I especially enjoy chatting with customers who are weekend lepidopterists, hobbyists fascinated with moths and butterflies. I teach them a bit about our native butterflies, with tips on starting a backyard butterfly garden.
CW: Is it true that a visitor to your store might literally bump into live butterflies
Barb: Yes! I raise them inside my shop. So far, the list of the species I’ve reared includes 30 butterflies and a dozen moths. Finding the eggs outside is fun and easy. But sometimes it requires netting the female and preparing an enclosure with proper host plants so she’ll lay eggs. After they hatch, I transfer caterpillars to vases and jars. Feeding those hungry crawlers becomes a full-time job!
When they’re grown, I put the caterpillars in a screened enclosure where each can find a sturdy surface to attach its chrysalis (for butterflies) or cocoon (for moths). Customers can watch them hatch. The sight of wings emerging from their silky shelter still thrills me.
When weather permits, customers help me release butterflies back to their natural environment so they can continue their life cycle on schedule.
CW: What does the future look like for butterflies, birds, plants and their habitats?
Barb: Every day we lose about 6,000 acres to land development, vast open areas that were once natural homes to wildlife. We all need to help with preservation, even if we start on a small scale in our own backyards. (Learn how to attract butterflies to a garden on page 14.)
I’ve always felt a special bond with butterflies, one I believe many people share. They represent life, hope, transformation and an inner strength that belies a fragile outside appearance. Butterflies have so much to teach us.
Monarch butterflies may look frail, but many of them will fly thousands of miles on their annual migration adventures.
Each spring, millions of monarchs fly north from their winter colonies in Mexico and lay eggs in Southern states. Their offspring continue the flight back to ancestral breeding areas in the northern U.S. and Canada. Several more generations may be born over the summer before the monarchs begin the autumn journey back to their wintering grounds. That means monarchs making the return trip to Mexico instinctively follow a route flown by their great-great-grandparents a year ago—to a place they’ve never been before!
Weighing about half a gram each, these long-distance navigators travel, on average, 50 to 100 miles a day. It can take monarchs up to two months to complete the journey.
How to help
Journey North is another resource for information on monarch migration and planting a butterfly habitat.
Photography by Jim Wieland & Styled by Melissa Haberman