Catherine Carney-Feldman saw one monarch butterfly last summer at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary.
“I went around to everybody in the sanctuary to let them know, because we hadn’t seen them until then,” she said. “In the past, we have seen hundreds in a day. Last year’s monarch butterfly population was the lowest we have ever seen.”
This Sunday’s Audubon Nature Festival at the Topsfield sanctuary, in addition to hosting a variety of programs and activities that explore the natural world, will focus on helping these butterflies recover.
Monarchs are threatened by loss of habitat in the Oyamel Forest near Mexico City, where they migrate 2,500 miles to spend each winter, Carney-Feldman said. Poor farmers are cutting down fir trees, which these insects live in, to use as fuel.
In addition, a combination of new herbicides and new strains of corn and soy plants used by American farmers are killing the milkweed plants where monarchs lay their eggs.
“The milkweed plant is the host plant for the monarch,” Carney-Feldman said. “All butterflies can only lay their eggs on a particular plant they have evolved with.”
To counter these losses, three types of plants vital to monarchs will be sold at the festival this year, including one variety of milkweed.
“The Asclepius tuberosa,” said Carney-Feldman, who leads volunteer gardeners at the sanctuary. “Its specialty is, it stays in place and doesn’t spread much at all. It’s good for the urban garden.”
The other two plants, coneflower, or echinacea, and bee balm, or monarda, provide monarchs with food.
In addition to the butterfly plant sale, activities for children will help raise awareness about the plight of monarchs.
“‘Make a flower bomb’ is a kids activity where they mix flower seeds that are selected to attract butterflies in a big ball of mud, and they throw it into a garden area or meadow where they want the flowers to grow,” said Susan Baeslack, education and volunteer coordinator at the sanctuary.