When MaryLynn Pulscher decided to organize the first ever Monarch Festival in 2009, she expected perhaps a few hundred conservation enthusiasts to show up.
As the environmental education manager for the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, she wanted to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Nokomis Naturescape. The project, led by planning staff at the MPRB, restored native habitat near Lake Nokomis. She secured a small grant from the Center on Urban and Regional Affairs, and with the Nokomis East Neighborhood Association, planned what became the inaugural Monarch Festival. The event drew around 1,000 Minnesotans, prompting her and the NENA to plan for a sequel.
The next year, she counted nearly 5,000 attendees. Since then, around 8,000-10,000 come to the one-day Monarch Festival/Festival de la Monarcas each year to celebrate Minnesota’s majestic migrator by purchasing pollinator friendly plants, tagging butterflies and engaging with Monarch-themed art. Through music and food, the bilingual event, with ASL interpreters, also celebrates the human connections to the endearing insect, from Minnesota to Mexico.
“I was blown away from that first and second year to go from a festival we thought would be a one time thing … People are just invested in them,” Pulscher says. “We all refer to them as a charismatic creature. They are just ubiquitous. They are the true symbol of summer for most Minnesotans.”
Salsa Del Sol, Tropical Zone Orchestra, Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue and Ballet Folklórico perform nearly every year, along with a rotation of Americana and folk performers. Visual artists including Sarah Nassif and Constanza De La O, who provide screen printing on-site, are also on hand. And rather than just having a stage, the festival includes a popular dancefloor, Pulscher says.
In response to this year's pandemic, virtual visitors can access the festival’s key components online, from printable art kits to video-taped concerts. Aside from having fun, the festival's main goal is to raise awareness of the disappearing pollinator: the number of adult monarchs making it to Mexico has decreased by 90 percent in the last two decades, though some years have seen a slight increase.
"No matter how you cut it, the monarch numbers are going down. The year to year variation, we shouldn’t get too excited about that," says Karen Oberhauser, director of the University of Wisconsin-Arboretum.
Oberhauser, who has studied monarchs since the 1980s, also co-founded the St. Paul-based conservation group Monarch Joint Venture. At the arboretum, her Journey North project tracks sightings of caterpillars, monarchs and their migration.
How people can boost monarch numbers
Some of the decrease can be attributed to severe hurricanes and unseasonably warm weather, according to the National Wildlife Federation. But a main factor is the loss of their habitat — monarchs can only lay eggs on milkweed, which is the only plant that caterpillars can eat. On top of human-caused hardships, scientists estimate less than 10 percent of monarch eggs survive to adulthood because of natural predators and caterpillar diseases.
"From a conservation perspective, we have to figure out how to provide more of what monarchs need, and that’s habitat," Oberhauser said. "We know that makes a difference, wherever people have some control of land — yards, schools, churches, local nature centers, places of business."
While summer is the season for milkweed, it's also key for monarchs to have access to pollen in the fall months, especially up north, Pulscher says. Monarchs progress north from Mexico in generations. It's the Super Generation born in late summer and autumn in northern areas including Minnesota that migrates south and lives several months longer than other generations.
While the monarchs west of the Rocky Mountains migrate to California, the rest of the Super Generation heads to the Sierra Madre Mountains — specifically in the mountain range's transvolanic belt located in Central Mexico. There, they huddle for warmth in the oyamel fir trees. While scientists have studied their flights for years, no one knows why they choose, or how they find, this specific spot. Once the weather warms up, they head further north, laying eggs that begin the next generational cycle of migration.
"We need plants that are still in bloom in September and October, because they need that nectar to fatten up for that flight to Mexico. It’s on us and all of our yards to provide that energy source," Pulscher said. "Mexico takes care of butterflies over the winter, and our job is to raise them and send them back healthy."