Bill Toone and the Monarch Butterfly

| January 10, 2021 | 0 Comments

Bill Toone spoke via Zoom to the Garden Club in November.  While earning a master’s degree in biology from University of California, Toone began studying the California condors.  He was hired by Zoological Society of San Diego and became part of the federally mandated California Condor

Recovery Team.  His attention was diverted to butterflies when he fell in love with a zoo worker who was more interested in butterflies than she was in Toone.  Although he continued his work to bring the California Condor back from near extinction, Toone did become genuinely interested in butterflies, particularly the monarch, and won the woman who became his wife.

The monarch butterfly is the only insect on Earth that migrates.  Toone spoke mainly about the eastern monarch butterfly, which migrates annually to the oyamel fir forest in a trans-volcanic mountain range two miles above sea level in the Mexican state of Michoacan. There it overwinters from late October to mid-March.

Toone told us that a biologist and his wife, Fred and Nora Urquhart, actually discovered the migratory habit of the monarch.  As a child, Fred followed monarchs, which disappeared at the end of summer.  When he became an adult, he was still fascinated by what happened to those butterflies.  He could trace them only to the United States border.  Fred developed a method of tagging the monarch.  He removed the butterfly’s scales (which help the butterfly escape its predator since these scales come off easily allowing the butterfly to escape) and glued a tag to the wing’s edge and the clear window portion of its wing.  To keep track of them he enlisted the help of hippie communes, Rotary clubs, boy and girl scouts to notify him if a tagged butterfly were found.  The trail ended at the Texas-Mexico border.  Nora managed to get a radio broadcast of the story of the missing end of the butterflies’ trail with a plea for learning their final destination in Mexico.

A Purépecha woman heard the broadcast and told her boyfriend about some butterflies that spent winters from late October until the spring solstice, roosting in the trees of the nearby forest where the villagers got wood for cooking and warming their homes.  She told him they believed that since the majority arrived around el Día de los Muertos, the butterflies represented the return of the souls of lost children and loved ones.  The boyfriend contacted Fred.

By this time Fred was suffering from heart trouble.  Nevertheless, he traveled ten to eleven thousand feet above sea level to this forest where he probably saw 800 tons of butterflies roosting in trees.  Gathering a bunch of dead butterflies with his walking stick, he began to sort through them.  He was thrilled to find one of his tags on the wing of a butterfly.  Fred had found the monarchs’ over-winter location, which, for some of them, was 3000 miles from their summer home.  National Geographic Magazine put the indigenous woman on the cover.

The oyamel fir spends the summer in the sun.  Somehow the trees and butterflies have formed a symbiotic relationship.  The trees’ stored warmth attracts the butterflies.  This generation of butterflies is known as the Methuselah generation; instead of living four to six weeks, these live nine months.  During the winter they conserve energy by being sexually senescent.  Spring reignites their hormones.  As if physically attached to each other, they take off with a roar, their wings resembling the sound of a heavy downpour.  They seek liquids: water and nectar.  Then they wait until the spring solstice when they mate.  Soon after, they die.

It will take three generations of butterflies to complete the journey north.  The Methuselahs, like all monarchs, lay their eggs only on milkweed plants.  These plants produce a toxin, a cardio glycoside.  From as far as three miles away, the monarch can detect which plant has the most stringent poison.  There she lays her eggs, the size of the head of a pin. The larvae, which will hatch from these eggs, eat nothing but milkweed.  Each caterpillar is able to sequester the poison so by the time it has gone through its five different larva stages, a chrysalis, and finally has become a butterfly, it will harbor that poison and have brilliant black and red wing colors announcing its poisonous being.  The larvae, according to Toone, are only a mouth, stomach, and anus.  They eat their way out of the shell, eat the shell, eat the skins they shed, and devour milkweed leaves and their poison.

Sadly, the only place these eastern monarchs overwinter is threatened.  The people of the village are poor.  To feed their families and keep warm, they use three stone fireplaces, which are built on the floor of their homes.  “Stick by stick,” Toone says, they are losing their source of heat and the butterflies’ winter homes.  Of the seven billion people on planet earth, about 3.2 billion use these fires on the floors of their homes,  The smoke, carbon, and tars stick to the ceilings and to people’s lungs.  Not only is this an inefficient way to create heat, it causes more than 4.3 million people, mostly women and children, to die from cooking indoors.  This is more than the total deaths from breast cancer, malaria, drinking dirty water, and AIDS according to the World Health Organization.

As Toone and his wife, Sunni, became aware of this problem, their focus broadened.  They wanted to help the entire planet including humans.  After 35 years with the Zoo, they founded ECOLIFE, a conservation group to do this.  They built a stove that uses half as much wood as the three stone floor model, and which has a chimney letting fire’s pollutants escape the house.  It is so successful that, having introduced it to Uganda, home of mountain gorillas, doctors prescribe ECOLIFE stoves to treat coughs, runny eyes, and noses.  This is saving much of the rainforests in Uganda and the oyamel firs of Michoacán for the butterflies and villagers.

Toone ended his talk with advice for us on the West Coast.  Butterflies want the most toxic milkweed; only buy milkweed that has caterpillars on it.  Thus, you know it has not been sprayed and will not poison the monarch larva.  Our butterflies migrate east to the edge of the Rockies.  Because the butterflies are supposed to migrate in the fall, cut your milkweed to the ground and keep it cut until spring.  This will help remind them to go east to overwinter.

On January 28, Nancy Carter will speak about the Lost and Found Gardens of Balboa Park.  Go to our website, and RSVP to get the information for attending the virtual meeting.

Milkweed is shown going to seed. Photo provided by Linn Splane.

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About the Author ()

Barbara Strona is a native Californian who grew up in the Mid-West and Los Angeles. She and her architect husband, Carl, came to San Diego in 1968 and have lived in Mission Hills since early 1971. Barbara received a Bachelor of Arts from Scripps College with a major in English, and a minor in Art. She attended UCLA graduate school and received a General Secondary Credential. She taught English in Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, and at Point Loma High School. She has been a Realtor specializing in residential sales since 1984. Her passions include her job, reading, writing, foreign languages and foreign countries, animals (feathered or furry), theatre, and her family: husband, two adult children and two grandsons.