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Westward Wings | A NATURE Short Film


“Westward Wings” follows researcher Maggie Hirschauer as she strives to learn more about the monarch butterfly population in western Montana. Maggie’s research opens a window to a world of pollinators and highlights the importance of creating habitat for native pollinators across the Western United States.


(somber music) - [Woman] I remember it was sometime in the winter and I heard a news story.

I think it was on the radio.

- [Man] Millions of monarch butterflies fluttering through backyards and across fields in the US.

But the Eastern population of monarch butterflies has declined by 80% since the mid '90s.

Western population which winters in central California has dropped even further.

- Just over the course of a week or two that news settling in.

(somber music) And then I started to do some research and realized that there wasn't much known or at least much documented about the species in Montana.

So I wanted to put monarchs on the map and Montana on the map.

It's kind of on the fringe of both the Eastern and the Western population range.

I did not know much about monarchs at all.

I'm not an entomologist.

I actually grew up in Indiana, but thinking back to my childhood, I don't really even remember monarchs being a part of my childhood at all.

I came to this more out of an interest for conservation.

Monarchs need milkweed and they follow the milkweed sprouts in spring.

They follow it as it's emerging north, because it's the only thing that monarchs will lay eggs on.

It's the only thing that their caterpillars will eat.

The majority of my day is spent crouching or walking very slowly and kneeling and looking at every single surface of the leaf and the plant of a milkweed.

I have several different sites.

So I drive between them and just take time going slowly and record everything that I see, insects and looking for eggs that are very small.

A lot of my older studies have focused on larger animals, very obvious animals and this study is very much on the micro level.

If I'm fortunate enough to find an egg, I'll take the entire leaf and bring it inside and put the egg in some sort of a container with ventilation.

And as it hatches, just make sure that the larva has food, every day, fresh milkweed.

The showy milkweed blossom smell amazing.

So it's very much a sensory experience.

The blooms are floral, but not like overpowering.

They're kind of sweet.

The buzzing of the bees and the insects is all around you.

Each patch is different.

Some have the milkweed specialist insects, like longhorn beetles, and then sometimes you get these random insects that I've never seen before in my life and might never see again.

I used to have a really horrible, horrible fear of spiders.

Once you're in a milkweed patch, you're sitting down and you're in it, fully surrounded on all sides.

I'd have full on panic attacks.

But now I don't know, just through various field works kind of gotten over it, being faced with them over and over and over again.

And now the spiders are some of my favorites and I've still never really been able to photograph them just 'cause they're so quick.

Monarchs need milkweed, but milkweed does not need monarchs.

And this kind of antagonistic relationship is what has driven the whole evolution of a lot of the chemicals and even the morphology of a lot of the milkweed.

- Monarchs have this really compelling story.

They make these huge transnational migrations that span successive generations of that insect.

They need this connected habitat between countries, between states and they need us all to work together in order for them to be able to complete this migration which is a fascinating story of connectedness.

- Every year, they fly north in the spring and they fly south in the fall and they overwinter in their overwintering grounds, either in the coast of California or Mexico.

But what's really different about this species and the monarch is that it happens over several generations.

So that means that every single individual butterfly is flying somewhere that it's never been before.

From the overwintering grounds, one particular individual leaves, it mates, it lays eggs and then it dies.

And then they might only go from their overwintering grounds about a hundred miles in inland or north.

And then it's up to the further three generations to continue the migration north.

It's almost, I like to think of it kind of like a leap frog.

So each generation has one leg of the race.

The interesting distinction between the Eastern population and the Western population is, the Western population only holds several thousand.

The most recent count was just over 29,000 butterflies.

But if you look at the Eastern population that overwinter in Mexico, they hold millions of butterflies.

Part of the reason why monarchs are so threatened is because it's facing several threats.

The loss of milkweed is one of them, especially in the Midwest.

Researchers think that could be a leading factor.

But there's also just the general use of herbicide and pesticide, part of our agricultural system I feel like unfortunately relies really heavily on the use of chemicals that are highly toxic, especially to invertebrates.

And a lot of these chemicals are going into our groundwater and they're going into the field margins and people might not be trying to directly target milkweeds but milkweed and other native nectar sources are being affected.

- Well, monarchs are like a gateway species for people to learn about plants and pollinators.

They're this big, showy orange butterfly.

They have an epic journey from south to north through successive generations and then back again to their overwintering habitat.

And they have this really special relationship with milkweed and without milkweed, they can't survive.

So that kind of relationship, that plant pollinator relationship is going on all around us.

(bees buzzing) They're like a flagship species.

So if monarchs were gone, the world wouldn't collapse, but what we would know is that we hadn't been able to do our job, keeping these areas connected.

That kind of habitat connectivity is not only important for monarchs, but it's also important for all these other species that surround us.

That maybe don't have quite as heroic a life history as monarchs do.

But whose existence is important not only for the natural environment in which they occur, but they're also important for our existence.

They're important also for the existence of these other creatures that we share the earth with.

When we're helping monarchs, we're also helping all these other species.

- [Woman] I would urge people to start to pay attention to the smaller things in their home, in their backyard.

And it might not be monarchs.

You might not have milk weed, you might not have monarchs, but you certainly have insects and that's their home too.

And they have a purpose there.

(somber music) (bees buzzing) - The most important thing you can do to encourage native pollinators is to plant native plants.

So plant the plants that are native to your area, 'cause a lot of insects like messy areas, especially beneficial ones.

So really plant native plants and do less work in your yard.

(woman laughs) - In helping the monarch and creating habitat and protecting these spaces and not using pesticides, you're helping everything else too.

You're helping the bees and the moths and the beetles.

This project has shown me that I can sit down and like, observe a blade of grass and suddenly you realize that there's a whole nother world there.

And so it's just added a certain level of depth and richness to the understanding of the entire ecosystem.

Any ecosystem that there's so many different layers more than just the bigger picture.

This project has had several awesome volunteers that have helped collect data across the valley and even further afield.

And they come from all walks of life.

We even have a musician who came from LA several years ago but he decided he wanted to compose music for the butterflies, for the release event.

So we were even able to play his music and he was able to even come and play for some of the butterflies as a release.

(somber music) Closing my eyes, I could see the butterfly flying.

It's like this cascading movement up into the sky with the wind.

(somber music) I do feel like monarchs are gonna stick around.

It might not be in the way that we envisioned it.

It might not be in the way that it was 10 or 15 years ago, but they're resilient.

They're gonna find a way.

(crickets chirping) (upbeat music)


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