For 40 years, Dr. Gene Louviere devoted himself to treating humans. Now retired, he has turned his talents to healing an ailing ecosystem — one monarch caterpillar at a time.
“My interest in gardening used to be how quickly can I get this done,” Louviere said. “Then my daughter-in-law, Vanessa, in New Orleans began sending backyard photographs of caterpillars and chrysalises.
“It was amazing to watch. I started looking into it.”
Louviere has put his degree in biology to work establishing a monarch way station at his Lafayette residence, where he's filling his yard with milkweed, the only plant the species uses to propagate, and nectar plants to feed them.
The monarch butterfly’s numbers have been depleted in recent years because of herbicides used along its migration trail. Various organizations are trying to stop its extinction, and it is under consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A decision on whether its will be placed on the endangered list is due in June.
“The monarch butterfly cannot survive without milkweed,” said William Welsh, research farm manager at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's Ira Nelson Horticulture Center. “It’s the only plant they lay their eggs on and the only plant that the monarch caterpillars eat. In simple terms, no milkweed, no monarchs.”
Twenty years ago, scientists counted a billion butterflies, Louviere said. "Now it’s 57 million. It sounds like a lot, but it’s a 90% drop. If it continues, we’ll be in serious trouble.”
Louviere said his garden is different from a butterfly garden.
"It’s a place where they can lay eggs.”
Spring migration for monarchs heading north from Mexico is now on and will continue until June.
"They also migrate to the same trees every year in Mexico, and before the region understood this, it considered the tens of thousands to be an infestation," Louviere said. "Now the biosphere in Mexico is being restored.”
Louviere said his homeowners association has been supportive of his landscaping changes and has even discussed the possibility of having some of River Ranch’s landscaping planted with milkweed to make it more monarch friendly.
“We have about 60 square feet, not much of a yard really, and zero grass right now,” Louviere said. “We were just talking about changing some more plants.”
He recently acquired his way station certification, guidelines for which can be found at several websites including monarchwatch.org.
“You have to have two different species of milkweed for the eggs and caterpillars, and nectar plants for the butterflies,” Louviere explained. “Three of the four stages of monarchs depend on the milkweed, which contains a toxin. Once a bird, the main predators of the caterpillars, chomps one, it will never do it again.
“They learn to avoid them pretty quick.”
Viceroys butterflies have evolved to mimic the monarch in coloration, taking advantage of this trait. “They protect one another,” Louviere said.
When all is said and done, it’s personal for Louviere.
“I was thinking about that these past few days. We’re part of nature. Seventy to 80% of our food source is dependent on pollinators, and I like to eat,” he said.
“The caterpillars are all little; I have maybe a half-dozen today," he added. "My take on it is I can’t do a million, but I can do some.”
Guidelines for a monarch way station
Size: While there is no minimum requirement, an effective way station should be at least 100 square feet. The total area may be split among several locations at the same site. There is no upper limit for size.
Exposure: Because butterflies and butterfly plants need lots of sun, the way station should be located in an area that receives at least six hours of sunlight in a day.
Soil: Milkweeds and nectar plants do best in relatively light (low clay) soils. Good drainage is needed to prevent rot and provide good aeration of the roots.
Shelter: To assure the maximum survival of monarchs, plants should be relatively close together, which provides shelter for monarchs and other wildlife from predators.
Plants: Plant at least 10 milkweed plants made up of several species. However, a large number of one species is sufficient. Monarchs, other butterflies and numerous pollinators also need nectar. A way station should contain several annual, biennial or perennial plants that provide nectar.
Management: To sustain the way station, create a plan that includes mulching, thinning, fertilizing, amending the soil, removing dead stalks and watering. Eliminate the use of insecticides.