Not much surprises farmer John Rinderer, but this week a bunch of monarch butterflies did.
“Monarchs are supposed to be on the decline. You don’t see a whole lot of them,” he said of the skittish orange and black butterflies. “I came around a grouping of trees. Hundreds of them flew up and startled me.”
John, a lanky guy with a moustache and a sense of wonder, stood alongside his white pickup with wife Barb about 9 Wednesday morning. They were about to head through their farm fields to see if the monarchs were still in the neighborhood — or more specifically, in the trees.
“They sleep late,” he said. “We will be waking them up.
“We noticed that the butterflies fly up into the surrounding trees at evening for a night’s sleep. The next day, they slowly filter out over the clover field and land on the numerous red clover blossoms.”
Monarchs feed on milkweed, but may be getting a final sip of nectar from red clover flowers to fuel up for their long journey to Mexico, more than 1,400 miles from his 210-acre farm near the Madison-Clinton county line, 6 miles northeast of Trenton.
“We have the near perfect conditions on our farm with milkweed and a large clover field that is being used as a cover crop and is allowed to flower without cutting,” he said, “and it’s surrounded by timber.”
The Rinderers turned to the Internet to find out a little more about monarchs. They learned that their total journey is 3,000 miles and they prefer flying when temperatures are between 80 and 100. They found that Sept. 14 to 26 is the optimum count-time for the 39-degree latitude belt.
“They are on their migration back to Mexico from Canada,” said Barb. “They are at our latitude now. They move in belts, go down a little at a time and gather in numbers as they move south.”
The Rinderers’ bumpy pickup ride looped past stands of trees and farm fields. John stopped near the trees, got out and walked along. He figured his movement might get the butterflies moving.
“There goes a monarch,” he said with enthusiasm. “Look in there. The trees are just full of them.”
With wings closed, they were hard to see.
“They love the flowers,” he said as a swift monarch flew down from the trees to the left, landing on a round red clover flower on the right. But not for long.
“I just love butterflies. We see the yellow ones — sulphur butterflies — all over the place.”
John owns the farm with his brother Orville. “I do the farming, but we rent out most of it. This farm is a very old farm. It was the first settlement farm in Clinton County, originally settled by a Scotsman named Hobbs.”
He noted that the 210 acres include a lot of waste ground, that a big creek runs through the middle and one-third of the ground is timber. He has 20 head of beef cattle and grows beans, corn and wheat, along with grass and hay for the cows.
“I have always been interested in trees, nature and bugs,” said John.
“I saw a lot more when I was a kid. I am 66 now. I lived here all my life. I would come down here on a bicycle. I was not allowed to go out on the road. I have never seen this many monarchs since I was a little kid on the farm.”
It’s not just John who has noticed an increase in monarchs.
“Acorrding to Monarch Watch, the premier monitoring (group), they are up in North America this year, which is a good sign,” said Chris Hartley, coordinator of science education and an entomologist with St. Louis’s Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House, a division of Missouri Botanical Garden. Monarch Watch is able to monitor the size of the population by distributing tags that anyone can order and place on butterfly wings.
“Anyone should expect to see monarchs moving through this time of year,” he said. “This is the way it should be.”
During the ride through the Rinderers’ fields, you learn that they have three children (“all successful,” said John) and six grandchildren, that Barb recently become a master gardener and that John worked in the maintenance department for Nike in St. Charles, Mo., for 22 years. That he woke up at 3:30 a.m., and, on a good day, the trip took an hour and 15 minutes.
He might show you in the back of the pickup the wood he harvested from an old tree. At Highland’s Homestead Festival the week before, he had a steam engine plane the wood for him. “I do woodworking once in a while,” he said. “Cherrywood is expensive. It was just rotting in timber. I couldn’t see that happen.” On the way back, he may point out something else.
“See these walnut trees. I planted them in memory of my parents.”
“It’s a very good nut year,” said Barb. “We have a hazelnut tree at home that’s loaded with nuts.”
And it’s a good year for butterflies.
“Butterflies and bees are important to crops,” John said. “They help to pollinate. That’s important to farmers. I’ve heard it said that honey bees and butterflies are like the caged canaries in the mine of our ecosystem.
“To me, it looks like they are on the comeback. It’s exciting. It’s good news we need to hear once in a while.”
A royal name: Because of their beauty, they are considered the king of the butterflies, hence the name “monarch”
On the move: They can travel between 50 and 100 miles a day. It can take up to two months to complete their journey.
Where they go: Monarchs in Eastern North America have a second home in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. Monarchs in Western North America overwinter in California.
Their claim to fame: The monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration as birds do. Using environmental cues, the monarchs know when it is time to travel south for the winter. Monarchs use a combination of air currents and thermals to travel long distances. Some fly as far as 3,000 miles to reach their winter home.
Game plan: Monarchs travel during the day and roost at night in pine, fir and cedar trees. These trees have thick canopies that moderate the temperature and humidity at the roost site. In the mornings, monarchs bask in the sunlight to warm themselves.
Journey of generations: The epic migration to and from the fir forests spans the life of three to four generations of butterfly, meaning no single individual ever makes the entire journey. Yet the species as a whole instinctively knows where to find these isolated mountaintops year after year.
Fun fact: The first three generations of monarchs live for two to six weeks. The fourth generation of monarch butterflies migrates to warmer climates like Mexico and California and will live for six to eight months until it is time to start the whole process over again.