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Madame Butterfly

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This kingly monarch draws nectar from a tropical milkweed in Mel Kelley's backyard, a monarch way station and a certified wildlife habitat. "Male monarchs," she said, "patrol yards and can get territorial. They chase off hummingbirds and goldfinches."
Two yellow, black and white-striped monarch caterpillars munch a milkweed plant, while their comrade at top pupates into a chrysalis.
Before releasing a day-old monarch, lepidopterist Mel Kelley prints a black mark along the insect's wing. The mark will allow her to recognize the monarch as one of her babies should she ever get a second look after she releases it.
Monarch crusader Mel Kelley prepares to release a young monarch butterfly on its first flight. In September the fourth-generation monarch will wing its way more than 1,700 miles to the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, the wintering grounds for millions of the orange and white insects. "They go flip, flip, glide," she says in describing the flight of the monarch. KEN BECK / The Wilson Post
As she holds a monarch caterpillar atop her left hand while others feed on plants in a jar, Mel Kelley observes a tiger swallowtail enjoying nectar from her tithonia (Mexican sunflowers).
Mel Kelley's yard is a monarch way station because she has made sure there are plentiful milkweed and nectar sources as well as shelter necessary to sustain monarchs as they migrate each spring and fall.
Perched on a flowering plant, these two monarch butterflies bear small white tags which will identify them should they be found at the end of their southern migration to Mexico. Submitted

Mel Kelley crusades for the majestic, migrating monarch

Mel Kelley's friends call her the monarch whisperer. Her enthusiasm for this magnificent orange and black-winged insect, crowned the king of the butterflies, knows no bounds.

On a sunny afternoon in August her backyard, an official monarch way station and certified wildlife habitat, flourishes with colorful flowers, green plants and trees that sway in the breeze. Here, within a matter of minutes, one spies a black and blue spicebush swallowtail, an electric blue pipevine swallowtail and a giant black swallowtail.

All three are wondrous sights to behold, but it's the migrating phenomenon, the monarch, that sets Kelley's heart all aflutter. She knows their story, their habits and personality as well as she knows her own.

"Growing up as a child in Ohio, seeing monarchs was a common sight. Nowadays it's phenomenal to ever see a monarch," she said. "When I see them most of the time, in the wild away from my gardens, it occurs at the corner of Mt. Juliet Road where you turn into Providence Shopping Center. Why we see them there is just bizarre."

Majestic monarch

For more info about monarch butterflies, go online to and

Why are they on the decline?

Some studies report the monarch population has dropped by one billion since 1990, but the reasons why are not exactly clear. The confusing picture emerges from seven monarch studies published August 5, 2015, in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America. The publication reported, "Many have blamed the decline primarily on the expansion of herbicide-resistant crops in the summer breeding grounds, which has led to the wide use of chemicals that kill milkweed." Ecologist Andrew Davis of the University of Georgia, Athens, who co-authored two of the papers, noted that migrating monarchs run "a gauntlet of dangers," including predators, parasites and even speeding cars. He said, "There is a tremendous amount of mortality, and we don't know how much."

Spotting a monarch seems to be proving much more difficult than plucking a four-leaf clover. Some studies report their population has dropped by one billion since 1990, which would be a 90 percent reduction over the past 25 years.

"We have the power to either save this, or we can ignore it completely and it's gonna go away," noted Kelley, who raises monarchs from eggs until they soar into the sky, using the cusp of her hands as a runway. "Only one to three percent of the eggs in the wild will make it to flighthood. This is why I hand rear them."

Kelley watches closely as the creature morphs through its four-stage lifecycle from egg to caterpillar to pupa and finally to an adult butterfly.

(To view all four stages go online to

As she releases one to the skies just a couple of hours after it emerged from the chrysalis stage, she offers encouraging words, saying, "There she goes. Don't be a gutter ball. She's heading for the trees."

This monarch wings 20 feet high before perching on a tree leaf, a pleasing moment for Kelley, who calls some of them "gutter balls" because several have only made it halfway to the trees and wound up in her rain gutters.

Leaving her mark

"Last year, one of the monarchs I raised, tagged and released had its ID tag recovered in Mexico," she says of the amazing feat. "How does something that weighs no more than a paper clip make it 1,700 miles to a fir forest in South Mexico? How does it know where to go?"

Last fall the lepidopterist tagged 100 monarchs, 60 of which she raised from eggs and another 40 that were passing through her gardens. One of her monarch tags was found at the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, the insects' wintering grounds, 129 miles west of Mexico City.

From Lebanon the creature flew about 1,750 miles in about two weeks, depending on the breezes and big storms or heavy rains.

"That monarch was raised in my yard and tagged on Sept. 16, and then the tags were recovered on March 3, 2015. When the tags are recovered, generally it means the butterfly died in winter, but it could have been a catch and release. It's a huge deal to have a tag recovery," said Kelley, noting that of an approximate 10,000 monarchs that were tagged last year, only 218 ID tags were found.

This summer Kelley has photographed 27 different species of butterflies in her yard, not counting skippers, the tiny butterflies that flutter around her flowers.

There's good reason for their abundance. From the end of January to December, counting all the blooming plants on her property from garden to trees, she counted 164 different blossoms.

Migrating again

Elated to preach the gospel about monarchs, Kelley's zeal is tempered with sadness due to the fact that by the time this story reaches print, she will have relocated to Johnson City because of her husband's job change.

"This is our 11th property and ninth home and the only time I didn't want to move. It's become a real special habitat for my husband and I as well as the great diversity of butterflies, bees and birds that call this place home," she said.

"I don't expect the abundance of monarchs up there (in Johnson City), but then again, my home habitat and Wilson County are really blessed with the monarch populations we have here all summer long. Wilson County is really unique because it's in their flight path in their journey north and their journey south.

"Most butterflies live about a month. Its job is to mate, do its thing, and that's it, gone. But the magnificent fourth-generation monarch will live up to six to nine months. They go from southern Canada to the southern U.S. and to south Mexico in the fall. Then they make that return trek in the early spring," said Kelley.

"The monarch is important because it's the canary in the coal shaft. Butterflies are part of a bigger picture for environmental concerns. For me it's emotional. I know what happens here.

"Wilson County is rather unique with our green antelopehorn milkweed, and we have a real role to play to help restore the migration numbers. We have such an incredible opportunity to make a difference.

"I enjoy my yard as a flying circus all year long. From the winter birds to the spring chimney swifts. The summer's rare bumblebees to our migrating monarchs. I would have none of this beauty without the native plants of Wilson County. Every day we see the loss of these habitats," she said.

Swelling development, dwindling Monarchs

"Every time we welcome a new company to Wilson County or we build new housing developments, we see our native plants being eliminated. Planting native plants such as ninebark, Aronia, and fothergillia, rather than non-natives like Bradford pear, burning bush or barberry would help. No milkweed, no monarchs.

"Giant black swallowtails need prickly ash. Pipevine swallowtails need the pipevine plant. Even our state butterfly, the zebra swallowtail, is dependent on the pawpaw and only the pawpaw.

"So, yes it can get emotional when we know there are some very simple choices we can make to give nature a break, yet most people run to the big box stores and buy non-native (many invasive) plants and trees that will never know the tiny chew marks of butterflies in the making."

Kelley emphasizes the necessity of milkweed for the survival of monarchs. She grows four types in her yard: the UT orange tuberosa milkweed, aka butterfly weed; tropical milkweed; swamp milkweed; and common milkweed.
"Milkweed does two things," she says, "It is the only host plant for monarch caterpillars and is a nectar plant that fuels monarchs and all our pollinators. The whole concept of host plant is important. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed... The plant does not have to be blooming to serve this purpose.

Planting with a purpose

"Something unique happens here at our home habitat. Seeing so many monarchs all summer long, seeing spicebushes, pipevines and even the giant black swallowtail on a regular basis is not a common garden occurrence."

That something unique is gardening with a purpose.

"Everything we plant has a purpose whether a host plant for butterflies, vegetables for us or seeds for the birds," said Kelley, an admitted activist.

"It goes back to conservation and education. There are small, specific things that people can all do to encourage wildlife, butterflies, birds, bumblebees, pollinators.

"Natives are best, but I also use non-natives, annual plants. It is big blocks of color that bring in butterflies. Ten of one plant is more effective than only one each of 10 different plants. Of course, 10 each of 10 different plants is wonderful and creates a successful butterfly garden."

Kelley started her first crusade as a youngster growing up in Marion, Ohio.

"When I was 13, my best buddy and I petitioned the city council to clean up the lake. They kicked us out. I grew up going fishing and hunting for mushrooms and even collecting milkweed pods for craft projects," she recollected. "I got really serious here because we had the time and plan to do it."

Giving a wing up

Kelley believes monarch habitat loss to be a major factor in the decline of the species, thus she practices a two-fold plan to help them survive by planting and protecting.

"They need milkweed to live and nectar plants for the journey south. The butterflies have to have fuel for flight. Goldenrod, ironweed, boneset and blue mist flowers are their fuel, and all are natural to Wilson County. Late-blooming nectar plants are essential to fuel the migration for monarchs and other migratory butterflies such as the giant sulphur.

"There are some easy ways we can help. Plant milkweed and ironweed. Plant some zinnias. The key to success with a home butterfly garden lies in big blocks of color and lots of native host plants," she said.

"Plants near obstacles could be left. Last year I trimmed my front ditch and anything not native was gone. I removed the Johnson grass and Queen Ann's lace. I only had a few more goldenrod and ironweed plants that were lovely. About this time last year the county mowing crews came out to mow and took out all the plants. There should be a way I could leave a little sign that says, 'This plant need to be protected.'"

Last summer Kelley shared between 1,200 and 1,500 caterpillar eggs with schools, the Discovery Center, GroWild and Monarch Meadows. This past winter she mailed 40 packets of milkweed seeds to like-minded folks in Ohio, Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Minnesota.

With her move to East Tennessee, Madame Butterfly's labors likely will slow down, but her passion continues to soar full speed ahead.

"As much as I hate leaving those wonderful gardens behind," says the monarch whisperer, "the buyers of our house have young children and knowing the next generation is going to see all this magic is a great feeling!"

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at

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