BLACKSBURG — On a Wednesday evening, toddlers and elementary school children are slapping together bombs in the town’s Market Square – and it’s a good thing.
The clay and soil orbs the children are shaping are intended to nourish, not destroy, life. Inside each ball lie seeds of the milkweed plants to nourish larvae of endangered monarch butterflies. When the seed bombs are flung into a flower bed or vacant lot, they start to degrade and release the sprouting milkweed plants in spring. For the striped caterpillars, species of milkweed (Latin name Asclepias) are the only restaurant in town. Without their sole food source, the monarch caterpillars would starve.
The “Monarch Mania” booth at the Blacksburg’s downtown farmer’s market reflects the town’s commitment to help the dwindling monarch population, said Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith as she proclaimed September “Monarch Butterfly Month” and announced Blacksburg’s imminent status as an official Monarch City recognized by Monarch City USA. Blacksburg hopes to be the first Virginia municipality to receive this recognition.
Monarchs have declined by almost 90 percent in the past 20 years — which means more than a billion butterflies have simply vanished, according the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The monarch faces an array of survival challenges including extreme weather events and habitat loss from pesticides and urban development. The insect needs milkweed for laying eggs and feeding caterpillars, and particularly in cities, those vital plants can be sparse.
“Every citizen of Blacksburg can make a difference by planting native milkweed and nectar plants to provide habitat for the monarch and other pollinators in locations where people live, work, learn, play, and worship,” Hager-Smith said. “The monarch is extremely beneficial, pollinating flowers and crops, and serves as an indicator species for the ecological health of large geographic areas.”
Almost a year ago, ecologist Javad Torabinejad approached the mayor about Blacksburg becoming a monarch-friendly town. Hager-Smith, who grows milkweeds in her own garden, liked the idea and began talking with town department heads. The town horticulture department has created pollinator gardens containing milkweed along South Main Street near the airport and beside the police station. The parks and recreation department had already created a pollinator garden in front of their administration building.
Many years ago, milkweed was listed as a “noxious weed” in the subtext of Blacksburg’s code. The town is now removing that designation. David Darnell, Blacksburg’s code enforcement official, says he’s never cited anyone for having the forbidden plants on the property, except for poison ivy and then only if the toxic plant threatened neighbors and passers-by.
In the town’s Price House Nature Center, children have been learning about nature and ecology through the SEEDS organization for years. Ann Raridon, a president of Sustainable Blacksburg and a Master Naturalist, garbs up regularly in her monarch butterfly costume to teach kids about the monarch life cycle and the importance of milkweed and nectar plants. For Monarch Mania, she has amassed a collection of caterpillars and three monarch butterflies to release after the mayor’s proclamation.
“This has not been a good year for monarchs in the nation and in Blacksburg,” Raridon said. “So many of my caterpillars disappeared before forming chrysalises.”
Monarch butterflies go through four stages, from egg to adult, during one life cycle and through four generations in one year. The fourth generation butterflies are the only ones who make the 1,200 to 2,800 mile migration to central Mexican forests for the winter.
Monarch City USA, formed in 2015 in Maple Valley, Washington, encourages municipalities to directly help the monarch butterfly population recover by encouraging and planting milkweed and nectar plants within their boundaries. The organization is especially interested in municipalities along the monarchs’ migration route, which includes Blacksburg. Raridon says monarchs migrate between the last week in August and the first week in October.
On Wednesday, the three monarchs released at Blacksburg’s Monarch Mania, fluttered high into a nearby maple, then headed south. In Market Square, the crowd cheered them on.