Betsy Yankowiak, director of preserves and programs at the Little River Wetlands Project in Fort Wayne, was there to greet her fellow monarch butterfly lovers Sunday afternoon.
"They’ll just be flittering by," she said of the beloved butterflies as she welcomed more than 1,200 people to the fifth annual Monarch Festival at Eagle Marsh Nature Preserve.
It’s this time of year that the monarch, an iconic American beauty with wings of rust and black, makes its 2,000-mile trek to Mexico for the winter.
Yankowiak and others who work and volunteer at the preserve expect hundreds of monarchs to stop by the 716-acre site adjacent to Fox Island County Park. Eagle Marsh boasts flowers and plants native to northeastern Indiana that the monarchs like, such as the bright, golden sawtooth sunflowers that lined the path to a demonstration area Sunday.
Volunteers at the festival gave away about 500 milkweed plants and planted an equal number in the marsh, which is an approved Monarch Waystation by Monarch Watch, Yankowiak said.
The monarch butterfly, known as a pollinator, is a threatened species.
Citing statistics used by the Little River Wetlands Project, Yankowiak said that in 2003 the butterfly covered 27 acres in Mexico. In 2013, that number was reduced to a mere 1.65 acres.
Some point to the disappearing milkweed plant as the major problem.
"Milkweed is the only larval host" of monarch butterflies, said Martha Ferguson, owner of Riverview Nursery in Spencerville, who was on hand to sell milkweed and other plants and bushes native to this area.
One of those native plants was the lowly paw paw tree, a common sight a few decades ago. The paw paw lives in wet soils, like the banks of the St. Joseph River, and is a favorite of the zebra swallowtail and paw paw sphinx moths, Ferguson said, who has been selling native plants for 25 years.
That folks need to buy native plants is an indication of where the environment has gone. One of an invasive species marketed as a sure thing to help attract pollinators is butterfly bush. But Ferguson said butterfly bush is an invasive species.
"No native butterfly of any kind will lay their eggs on it," Ferguson said.
Luann Kurtz of Fort Wayne and her daughter-in-law, Molly Kurtz, of Ossian, listened to Ferguson with interest. Molly Kurtz and her four children raise monarchs in an aquarium covered on top with mesh. Luann Kurtz said it was "really neat to see the chrysalis hanging from the aquarium."
Before the season is over, the family expects to release 25 monarchs. There have been 11 so far, Kurtz said, six boys and five girls. Mia Kurtz, 6, explained that if the butterfly has a dot, it’s a boy; no dot, it’s a girl.
The family gathers fresh milkweed from nearby fields to feed their monarch caterpillars.
Recently, Molly Kurtz asked Mia where she would go in the world if she had her choice.
"I’d go to Mexico," Mia replied, "to see a tree full of monarchs."
Eagle Marsh is open free to the public dawn to dusk every day. Parking is outside the green gate on Engle Road at the Boy Scout office, 8315 W. Jefferson Blvd. Yankowiak predicts the monarch will be seen at the preserve for another week.