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‘Millions and millions’ of Monarch butterflies coming to the Carolinas this spring?

Angel Hjarding’s Butterfly Highway

Angel Hjarding, director of pollinator and wildlife habitat programs for the N.C. Wildlife Federation, is working with schools, neighborhoods and other organizations to build and preserve habitat for butterflies across North Carolina.
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Angel Hjarding, director of pollinator and wildlife habitat programs for the N.C. Wildlife Federation, is working with schools, neighborhoods and other organizations to build and preserve habitat for butterflies across North Carolina.

The news came like a lightning bolt to butterfly lovers across the Palmetto State.

“Millions and millions of butterflies are headed straight for South Carolina this spring.”

But should amateur entomologists get too wound up?

Maybe not, according to state and federal natural resource agencies. Wildlife officials say people may see some butterflies, but they are skeptical hordes of Monarchs will wing their way through South Carolina.

The news of the supposed Monarch invasion came from a light and breezy blog called onlyinyourstate.com, which lists travel tips, destinations and fun facts tailored to each individual state. The butterfly story was on separate Facebook posts tailored to both South Carolina and North Carolina.

The April 19 South Carolina post got 3,200 reactions, 3,000 shares and 183 comments. The same post a few days earlier in Only In North Carolina drew 4,000 reactions, 229 comments and 3,000 shares.

“Been a long time since I’ve seen these beautiful butterflies around here,” Avalon Jackson of Lancaster wrote.

“I hope there really are millions,” wrote Robin Byington Buchanan, of Spruce Pine, N.C. “The numbers have decreased so much. I have plenty of native flowers and milkweed to attract them.”

“Maybe a few will veer off the path and come to Seneca,” wrote Nancy Dobson. “Would love to see millions and millions!”

I have some chickens that will be excited to hear that!” wrote North Carolina’s Ken Kilmer.

Many of the comments urged people to plant milkweed, or offered to share or sell milkweed seeds.

Monarchs love milkweed. They feed on the plant’s nectar, but more importantly, milkweed is the only food that monarch caterpillars eat, so it’s essential to their survival.

The post noted that “it was thought the Monarch population was on a decline. But this dainty, yet hearty insect has all but debunked that theory.”

It noted that “record numbers” of the bugs were passing through Texas in “massive swarms” and were heading for the Carolinas on a “Monarch super highway.” The post cited a U.S. Department of Agriculture map that showed migration patterns, one of which rolled through the deep South and the Carolinas.

But “millions and millions” this year?

The U.S. Forest Service, which had posted the map on which the blog item was written, says it isn’t predicting millions of butterflies to swarm through South Carolina. The service actually doesn’t know how many will travel through the state, a spokesman said. The maps primarily focus on where butterflies have been seen and what their migration patterns are, Forest Service spokesman Jon McMillan said.

“All we’re saying is those are the natural patterns and (the Monarch) does pass through,’’ McMillan said. “As far as the numbers go, I don’t know the answer.’’

One veteran butterfly researcher was skeptical the state will encounter an invasion this spring.

“There is not going to be any major movement of Monarchs through the state,’’ said Billy McCord, a S.C. Department of Natural Resources official who has studied butterflies for decades.

McCord said people may see some Monarchs, but not a “massive’’ amount like people see in Texas. Many of those Monarchs are flying north after wintering in Mexico on their way to the upper Midwest, instead of the southeast coast and South Carolina, he said.

“We don’t get that movement here, not a pronounced movement, at least,’’ he said.

The state has some resident populations that live along the coast from Georgetown to Hilton Head Island, he said. People may see them, as well.

Monarch butterflies are popular with nature enthusiasts because of their grace and color. They are among the largest butterflies in North America, with wing spans of up to 5 inches. Interestingly, monarch butterflies that return in the spring from wintering in the tropics do not make it back to their final destinations. Instead, they will stop along the way and breed. The offspring then continue the journey north.

Bob McAlister, a public relations executive and former chief of staff for the late Gov. Carroll Campbell, re-posted the item with the exclamation “I hope this is right!”

When informed it wasn’t, he was sad.

“That just sucks,” he said. “Here we are in a world full of turmoil, tragedy and chaos, and we get a glimmer of hope that a peace-loving little bug will do us the honor of visiting little old South Carolina and now you tell me it’s not true. Next thing you will tell me is we‘re not going to build a wall.”

So who is right? Will monarchs pour through the state? South Carolina residents should know in a few weeks.

Sammy Fretwell has written about the environment for more than 20 years. Among the matters he covers are climate change, wildlife issues, nuclear policy, pollution, land protection, coastal development, energy and state environmental policy. Fretwell, who grew up in Anderson County, is a University of South Carolina graduate. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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