Chasing a cloud
of orange and black
Family plants hundreds of milkweeds to lure monarchs to former quarry
As Rocky Hett’s gaze scanned a blue, quarried lake and surrounding meadows on a cool summer morning, his mind drifted back to a memory as clear as the skies overhead, one of color and motion; a memory of monarchs.
“They were all down in the Clear Creek river bottom,” Hett said, gesturing north. “You could drive down there in the evening and honk the horn, and there would be just clouds of butterflies.”
Such sights were common decades ago as eastern North American monarchs migrated through the county from southern Canada and the upper Midwest to winter in Mexican forests.
However, monarch numbers have drastically declined. Monarchs wintering in Mexico occupy just one-tenth of the space they did when scientists began monitoring in the 1990s.
Many scientists attribute a significant loss of milkweed, the only plants monarchs lay eggs on, as a reason for the butterfly’s decline.
Thursday, Hett, his wife, Shirley Jo, and his daughter, Wendy, did their part to reverse that, planting the last of about 450 milkweed plugs in meadows reclaimed from quarrying on his farm northeast of Marion.
“This was all pasture before we quarried, and we’re putting it all back,” Hett said. “It’s just a great big landscaping job is what it is. We’ve got a few of our native milkweed, but I thought if we got more of a variety and get them spaced out more that we’d get monarchs coming back through here again. They’re such a beautiful little insect.”
Monarch Watch, a conservation and research program at the University of Kansas, provided the plugs free of charge.
“It’s been so easy,” Wendy Hett said. “It’s all been done by email.”
The Hetts picked up milkweed plugs at a restoration nursery in Baldwin City about two weeks ago, and started planting June 18.
“I thought Father’s Day would be a good day to start,” Wendy said, “because my brother Chris and his family would be here, and we could do the first big push all together.”
Wendy had a six-step plan for the group to follow, but that was quickly whittled in half.
“Daddy’s really let me take the lead, but if I want to do something a certain way, I’ve learned to listen to his way and do it that way,” she said.
With native stands of common milkweed growing in undisturbed areas of eastern portions of the farm, the Hetts concentrated on areas reclaimed last fall by former quarry operator Harshman Construction.
“Martin Marietta (the original operator) and the Harshmans, whatever we’ve asked them to do, they arrange everything,” Rocky said. “They take care of the cost of the reclamation. Both companies have been great.”
The Hetts plan to do another round of planting next year if Monarch Watch has more free milkweed plants, Wendy said. They also may harvest pods for the program to use for seed.
Restoring monarchs to their former numbers will take years, perhaps decades, and the Hetts don’t expect a return of butterfly clouds any time soon.
“This is for the long run,” Wendy said. “There’s no immediate payoff in gardening, in farming. It’s the payoff for the future.”
However, that hasn’t stopped Rocky from dreaming of an attraction that would eclipse the world’s largest hand-dug well or ball of twine, two unusual Kansas attractions.
“We’d like to put up a sign out there at the highway, ‘World’s largest butterfly concentration,’ right here in Kansas,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be neat?”