The season’s first official monarch butterfly sighting occurred just days ago — a distinctive pair of orange-and-black wings spotted fluttering in western Loudoun County, arriving just in time for the launch of an annual campaign that aims to help the threatened insects survive.
Last year, the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy’s inaugural monarch butterfly campaign planted monarch “way stations” at schools and communities across the county and oversaw the release of about 2,500 monarch butterflies into the wild.
This year, the program has even bigger ambitions, including greater outreach efforts, planting larger swaths of milkweed — plants that serve as breeding and feeding grounds for the butterflies — and bringing the fragile species to the attention of transportation and tourism officials.
To kick off its second annual campaign, the group announced that it is hosting monarch way station planting events at Morven Park in Leesburg on Saturday and at the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship in Purcellville on Sunday, said Nicole Hamilton, president of the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy.
The way stations — gardens filled with milkweed and other nectar plants favored by the butterflies — will be the biggest so far, at about 2,500 square feet each, Hamilton said.
“This is a new undertaking, and it’s going to be a lot of organizing and showing people how to plant,” Hamilton said. “But there has been even more interest from people. . . . There’s definitely a demand for more knowledge and information about monarchs and how people can help, so that has been exciting.”
Monarch butterflies are perhaps best known for their remarkable annual migration from Mexico to the United States. But in recent years, a variety of factors — including scarce breeding grounds, shifting climate patterns and the illegal logging of forests in Mexico, where the insects overwinter — have devastated their population.
With the use of herbicides and genetically modified crops making it increasingly difficult for monarchs to find the vegetation they need, wildlife advocates in Loudoun are determined to create havens for the vulnerable butterflies, Hamilton said. The organization also plans to help preserve existing milkweed growth along Loudoun’s roads and highways.
“This year, I’m really hoping we’ll be able to take on work with” the Virginia Department of Transportation, Hamilton said. “Last year, there was an edict to mow the medians and roadsides, and that happened in mid-July, when the monarchs were at their peak development time.”
She hopes to create a new initiative to preserve those milkweed breeding and feeding areas, and to educate the public about the need to help boost the monarch population.
The conservancy also plans to develop more business partnerships with local vineyards and inns, Hamilton said, in the hope that they might also plant way stations and include the monarch campaign in tourism outreach efforts.
Every way station, no matter how small, makes a difference, Hamilton said.
“Even though the population is down, each female can lay 300 to 600 eggs if the milkweed is there,” Hamilton said. “So if we do our part, the monarchs will do their part.”
The Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy will host a way station planting event from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship visitors center in Purcellville, where milkweed plants will be sold for $3 each. A milkweed plant sale is also scheduled from 3:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesday in the parking lot of Morven Park in Leesburg. Monarch rearing cages, books, T-shirts and information on planting a way station will also be available.