Monarch Mafia: Making a Difference One Butterfly at a Time

Three ladies wearing shirts that say "Save the Monarchs!" stand with their backs facing the camera
The women of the Monarch Mafia.

Photo courtesy of Friendship Hill National Historic Site.

A yellow and black striped caterpillar, or instar, which is the juvenile form of a monarch
An instar, or juvenile monarch, found in the Friendship Hill National Historic Site protected area. An instar is a phase between two periods of molting in the development of an insect larva or other invertebrate animal.

Photo courtesy of Friendship Hill National Historic Site.

Sometimes a conversation can open doors and create opportunities as ideas are shared and exchanged. When National Park Service (NPS) Ranger Renee Benson made a simple “dog off leash” contact in the spring of 2015, a charming conversation about the milkweed plants that grow at Friendship Hill National Historic Site (NHS) opened doors for a new partnership in pollinator conservation.

The off-leash dog owner was Sunnie Morton, and the conversation was the beginning of the Monarch Mafia, a dedicated group of volunteers, that is still going strong and providing support to the park, its plants, and pollinators.

"When the monarchs arrive, the [Monarch Mafia] goes out once a week to look for adults and instars on spotted milkweed,” said Morton.

The volunteers have been counting the number of monarch eggs and larvae and documenting the variation between the years and among different locations. While a survey once a week from June to October is the only commitment required of the volunteers, each person takes time to study and learn how to identify the monarch eggs, according to Morton.

Recognizing that habitat loss is a threat to monarch butterflies, park staff have been altering mowing times in coordination with a local farmer. This simple act of changing the park’s mowing regime has allowed pollinators to enjoy fresh milkweed blooms and much needed habitat throughout the growing season.

A group of people standing on a dirt path, admiring the gardens
Visitors of Friendship Hill National Historic Site admiring the volunteer group's gardens.

Photo courtesy of Friendship Hill National Historic Site.

Gardens for All

Working with park staff, the Monarch Mafia established pollinator gardens around the Gallatin House at Friendship Hill NHS using historically accurate native plant species. The butterfly weed, purple coneflower, and bee balm benefit a variety of butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, and other insects, providing pollen, nectar, and habitat. The gardens also attract visitors, who admire the plants and their insect companions. The small gardens illustrate that a few simple additions or changes can create prime habitat for pollinators, which is a great lesson for other parks—even small patches of habitat help!

“The pollinator gardens at Friendship Hill are such a marvelous opportunity to rediscover tranquility and the simple beauty of our Earth’s pollinators working so diligently within the beauty of the flowers,” said volunteer Valerie Faris. “It is such a joy to watch other visitors also stand still and just observe.”

Morton now lives in New Mexico, but the other Friendship Hill NHS volunteers carry on. They are not only protecting and enhancing the park’s resources, they are also educating the public in the process. The Monarch Mafia shares information about monarchs and other pollinators at special events, and they hope to work with park staff to establish more gardens and expand their natural history observations.

For Morton, public awareness is one of the most important actions the Monarch Mafia can take moving forward, telling people about the declining populations of monarchs and letting people know what the Mafia does.

A NPS ranger standing with the volunteers of the Monarch Mafia
Park Ranger Renee Benson with the Monarch Mafia volunteers, including Sunnie Morton.

Photo courtesy of Friendship Hill National Historic Site.

The park is eager for more involvement with the Monarch Mafia, too!

“I look forward to working with this passionate group in the near future,” Benson said. “It is so exciting that we are opening many doors for strong relationships with our natural world.”

The Monarch Mafia of Friendship Hill NHS provides great example of how you can harness the power of citizen science and volunteers to help preserve and protect pollinators in your park.

You can support pollinators, too!

If your park has a pollinator garden or habitat restoration project, please register it through the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.

Park Staff: If you have a similar story of how people have made a difference for pollinators in your park unit, please submit your stories on the Pollinator Friendly Parks site. Natural Resource Stewardship and Science staff will share pollinator success stories in 2018 through social media and InsideNPS articles, with the hope of inspiring action in others. For more information, e-mail us.

Last updated: March 20, 2018