Bloomfield residents work to save the monarch

Photo Courtesy of Susan Hebert
A monarch butterfly is poised for release.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — A passel of environmentally minded Bloomfield residents are collectively and independently creating flowering garden beds to attract and sustain pollinators while also raising monarch butterflies to send on their 3,000-mile migration to Mexico. The butterflies will return north in the spring, but only after three or four generations have expended themselves on the journey, in a relay for life, from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to the beauteous fluttering creature that may return to alight on township flowers.

These neighbors envision a pathway of pollinating gardens on public lands and in backyards, from one end of Bloomfield to the other. 

Some of the less glamorous grunt work is being accomplished by Councilman Rich Rockwell, who has cleared the invasive Japanese knotweed from a section of the Morris Canal Greenway along Oak Tree Lane. An Eagle Scout project provided raised beds, which Rockwell filled with plants essential to the life of monarchs, such as and including milkweed. 

“Where there used to be knotweed, it’s been replaced by native plants including white snakeroot, asters, goldenrods and native grasses,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “Last year there was an Eagle Scout project to remove invasives behind Demarest Elementary School and replace it with deer tongue, a native grass.”

Milkweed is also being planted behind the school, according to the councilman, who maintains the area although groundhogs love their milkweed sprouts, too. Rockwell said while others are raising monarch caterpillars, he is focusing on the flowers.

“You have to keep at it,” he said. “The invasives will return, but by next year, there will be less work. It’s very encouraging that there’s so much snakeroot. And the milkweed is spreading.”

In light of environmental concerns, planting flower beds and raising butterflies in Bloomfield seems to reflect a significantly larger movement: that of concerned citizens pushing back against habitat loss and insecticides. 

At Van Tassel Funeral Home, there is a butterfly garden on the property that has been certified by the North American Butterfly Association. And on Saturday, Aug. 27, at 3 p.m., owner Izabela Van Tassel will host her second memorial butterfly release. She said the butterflies are being raised by an associate. 

“Last year, there were 15 people who attended,” she said during a telephone interview. “The release of the butterflies is the letting go of grief.”

A fee is charged to release a butterfly at the event.

“We’re working with the nonprofit Include Me Too, which provides funeral assistance to children to talk about their grief,” Van Tassel said.

“I have a big property,” she continued, “and let everything grow. But people should stop using chemicals. This year, I see fewer butterflies. A few years back, I saw hummingbirds at my trumpet vine but this year only some.” 

Bloomfield activist Susan Hebert has been raising monarchs for the past four years in bottles and tins on her front porch. She said it takes about 30 days to raise one. The process begins with locating a tiny egg on the underleaf of a milkweed plant.

“People all over the country are doing this,” Hebert said. “It’s phenomenal. Some people have huge places in their backyards to raise them, and they’re working very hard.” 

Hebert, who has raised about 150 butterflies over four years, said it would be marvelous if people grew nectar plants instead of lawns.

“Monarchs are on the endangered list,” she said. “We may not see them someday. And there’s a problem in Mexico. They’re logging the trees the monarchs live on.”

According to resident Susan Moseson, who along with her husband, Richard, is a Friends of Watsessing Park Conservancy member, the trees being logged in Mexico are called oyamel trees. Monarch butterflies overwinter only on these trees, she said.

“The conservancy created a butterfly garden at the park six years ago,” she said in a telephone interview. “At first, it was devoted almost exclusively to monarchs and we purchased milkweed. It was a tiny garden.”

But thanks to the Bloomfield High School football team, Essex County Public Works assistance, Home Depot and a $1,000 grant from the Northeast Earth Coalition, the garden was expanded this year.

“Monarchs migrate from Canada,” Susan Moseson said. “There are two pathways away from Bloomfield. One goes west through Pennsylvania and the other south to Cape May and across Delaware Bay. They need nectar to make these trips, and we have been working very hard to have flowers in the fall.”

It is hoped that the monarchs will gather enough nectar from a fall-blooming plant called boneset. And in the spring, the great-great-grandchildren of the first wave will return to beds of wild geraniums, a springtime bloomer.