“There he is!” I look up as tattered orange wings flutter above the sunflowers. A lone male monarch butterfly hovers near the milkweed patch, gallantly hoping, says wildlife ecologist Rod Sayler, for the arrival of a female.
The scene took place early last August at the Washington State University Arboretum and Wildlife Center, where for the first time in 25 years, Sayler documented the iconic butterflies living and breeding on campus. Weeks earlier, to his astonishment, he’d found a handful of monarch caterpillars devouring the leaves of recently restored showy milkweed plants.
“The monarchs were a big surprise for me,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve seen them at WSU except for fly-bys. I thought, ‘Wow, it finally happened!’”
Sayler, an unabashed naturalist known for his signature straw hat, is project director for the arboretum and an associate professor in the School of the Environment. In an age of climate specialists and policy wonks, Sayler revels in the down-to-earth study of nature in all its intricate bounty.
For the last nine years, he and his colleagues have painstakingly transformed a wedge of farmland into a botanical garden alive with wildflowers, native bees, meadowlarks, amphibians, rabbits, deer, and more. It’s a campus dream over a century in the making, says Sayler, one that finally came to fruition in 2008 when the 100-acre conservatory was approved by former WSU president Elson S. Floyd and the Board of Regents.
Today, the arboretum’s rolling hills are threaded with public walking paths that lead through a showcase of environmental exhibits: sagebrush rangeland, native Palouse prairie, a ponderosa pine forest, grassy savannas, wetlands, and blue camas meadows. Interspersed here and there are pockets of milkweed.
While some arises naturally in disturbed soil, most of the milkweed is carefully grown from seed and transplanted with the help of Sayler’s restoration ecology class. It’s a slow process—the plants take two years to mature to the flowering stage when seedpods can be harvested for further propagation.
The arboretum is also dotted with small ponds, the largest of which is located in a hardwood forest affectionately known as the “Woodland.” Toward the north end of the reserve, Sayler has developed three smaller ponds near a series of flower-filled pollinator gardens.
It was on a lush milkweed plant in these gardens that Sayler first spotted the striped monarch caterpillars last July. The parent butterflies, exhausted by their long migration, had been drawn by the pink and white blossoms.
The western monarch, which typically overwinters in eucalyptus trees along the California coast, travels north each spring in search of milkweed plants on which to lay eggs. Though adult butterflies eat nectar and fruit juice, the caterpillars must have milkweed for normal growth and development.
Sayler says breeding monarchs only live two to five weeks, so it takes several generations to reach Washington state. Once here, the monarchs populate the Palouse until mid-August when the last generation to hatch returns south.
The discovery of monarchs at WSU comes at a time when the insect’s survival is threatened by habitat loss in their overwintering grounds and the destruction of native milkweed by herbicides. Populations of the once abundant eastern North American monarch have fallen by 80 percent since the mid-1990s.
The situation is so dire that the vermillion butterfly is getting assistance through former President Obama’s 2014 Pollinator Health Task Force aimed at promoting the wellbeing of honeybees and other pollinators like the monarch.
Sayler is also doing his part. On that hot afternoon last August, he invited me into his laboratory where five plastic jars sat on a workbench. Hanging from each lid was a small, emerald-green chrysalis containing a pupating monarch caterpillar. In about 10 days, they hatched into butterflies and Sayler released three males and one female into the wild.
“We’ll see if monarchs make it back here next year,” he said last fall. “Was this a unique event? Or will they be here on a regular basis? We’re not sure what we’ll find.”
This spring, visitors can take a look for themselves. The pollinator gardens are now open to the public and can be accessed from the arboretum parking lot via a meadow-like pathway complete with benches and the occasional bat box. Educational displays and demonstrations are in the works.
As a counterpoint to America’s increasingly urban lifestyle, Sayler says he wants to provide opportunities for school children to interact with and learn from nature. “We’re planning things like an ecological scavenger hunt and a sunflower forest with paths,” he says.
“It’s really important for our kids—and people of all ages—to be exposed to the outdoor world, not just to learn about problems with the environment and climate change, but to learn to love nature for what it is. To see a butterfly. To see frogs and tadpoles, you know. That’s the first step.”
It was a step that brought lifelong adventure for Sayler himself.
“I used to do this when I was a kid,” he says, looking out over the gardens. “I grew up in the Midwest where monarchs were common in the summer…I studied them as a budding scientist. And we played in the grassy fields and ponds. Now, I’m an old man and back to where I started.”