Pa. woman studies migratory monarchs

May 08, 1999|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - The bumper sticker on the back of Amye Lundgren's Subaru station wagon reads "Butterflies Are Free," and it tells a lot about her.

Lundgren is known as "the butterfly lady" because of her knowledge of monarch butterflies, an expertise gained through self-study of the beautiful orange-and-black insects. They are the most common butterfly species and can be found all over the world.

Lundgren, 39, a mother of three who home-schools her children, searches the fields around her farmhouse on Pa. 416 for milkweed plants, the monarch's favorite habitat, the only plant upon which it lays eggs and the only one its caterpillar eats, Lundgren said.

She picks eggs and caterpillars off the plants, brings them home, puts them in small cages and waits for them to emerge as butterflies, usually in about five weeks. She sticks a tiny tag under their wings with harmless rubber cement and sets them free. The tags are supplied by the South Central Pennsylvania Butterfly Watch.


Lundgren is one of hundreds of people, amateurs like herself, who study monarchs along their migration route from Cerro Pelon in southern Mexico up to Canada. The migrations run from mid-September to late November.

The monarchs, which Lundgren calls "spring butterflies," arrive in the Mercersburg area from mid- to late May. The eggs they lay will become butterflies in early July and will die in two to three months, but not before they lay their own crop of eggs in late August. Lundgren calls those that emerge in mid-October "fall butterflies." They will migrate to Mexico for the winter, lay eggs there and their offspring will repeat the spring migration northward again.

"Spring butterflies are the mothers of the fall butterflies which migrate back to Mexico," she said. Offspring from the fall butterflies will return to Mercersburg the following spring. "They consider home the place where their mother was born. That completes the migration cycle," she said.

Lundgren raises up to 300 butterflies each summer from eggs and caterpillars that she finds attached to milkweed leaves or eating them. She takes the whole leaf and puts it in a Styrofoam cup in which she has punched air holes. They serve as her cages. She has to replenish the leaves as old ones get devoured, she said.

Eggs hatch into caterpillars which, in turn, spin a cocoon around themselves before emerging as full-blown butterflies.

Butterfly watchers like Lundgren help to keep track of the insects' populations. "Development and pesticides have done a number on butterflies," Lundgren said.

She studied butterflies for five years with a professional lepidopterist but still considers herself an amateur. Her degree is in parks and recreation. She was recreational director of Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia.

"I was a gym teacher for the handicapped," she said.

She got interested in butterflies "because they are such beautiful, gentle creatures."

She has a butterfly garden in her backyard planted in varieties of flowers that produce the nectar that butterflies love, she said.

Anyone can hear Lundgren speak on the behavior of monarch butterflies Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Renfrew Institute for Cultural and Environmental Studies at the Renfrew Farm Museum in Waynesboro, Pa.

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