When David Gagnon was growing up, he remembers hunting and fishing near Contentnea Creek outside of Ayden. Decades later, retirement pursuits have brought the former engineer back to his old stomping grounds.

But today he is making use of another kind of bait with an entirely different prize in mind. Rather than hunting and fishing, this licensed North Carolina Wildlife Rehabilitator is helping to feed the threatened monarch butterfly species.

Gagnon, who began growing plants for monarchs at his Greenville home in 2018, is beginning to spread his wings. The result is Monarch Meadow, a butterfly habitat at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences at Contentnea Creek.

“They have a fabulous 3-acre spot,” Gagnon said of the grassy area, adjacent to one of four ponds on the property along Contentnea Lane. “It just seemed perfect.”

Monarch Meadow contains plots of milkweed and nectar plants needed by the butterflies, whose numbers have been declining for a quarter of a century. The project was hatched by John and Nancy Bray, founders of A Time for Science, which has become one of two Pitt County branches of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

The plan for the site’s metamorphosis began last fall after the Brays read an article in The Daily Reflector about how Gagnon and his wife, Sue, had turned their extra bedroom into a nursery of sorts for monarchs. With room to spare at the 400-acre outdoor learning center near Grifton, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences at Contentnea Creek was willing to host butterflies preparing for their flight to Mexico.

“It is fascinating and so great what has transpired from that article,” Sue said, adding that the couple has received calls from other monarch enthusiasts in eastern North Carolina. “It’s so exciting.”

Numbers dropping

Monarchs need all the publicity they can get. Known for their unique migration pattern, the butterflies have for years been candidates under consideration for the Endangered Species Act. The insect was determined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in December 2020 to warrant a listing of endangered or threatened, but it didn’t make the list because other species were were deemed to have more urgent circumstances.

The orange-winged creature, whose frame is outlined in black with white dots, cannot withstand cold weather and travels as far as 3,000 miles to reach its winter home in Mexico. It is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration as birds do.

According to the results of the 2020-21 annual population report by the World Wildlife Fund, eastern North American monarchs covered about 5 acres of forest canopy in Mexico this past winter, 2 fewer acres than in 2020. Experts say the current number is about one-third of what is needed to sustain their population and its continental migration.

To help counter that, ecologists recommend planting milkweed, the only plant that gives monarchs a place to lay their eggs and provides food for the larvae.

Nancy Bray began growing milkweed about four years ago in her vegetable garden, which her husband likes to call “Mother Nature’s Playpen.”

“I had heard that farmers were just plowing them down because they’re so ugly,” she said of the plants, which can be toxic to livestock and other animals. “They are gorgeous, absolutely beautiful, and they’re covered with bees and butterflies.”

This summer, milkweed plants are spreading beyond her garden to dozens of plots where they are mingled with butterfly bushes, zinnias, marigolds and pink coneflowers. A “living laboratory” of sorts, the plots will be separated by narrow walkways so that students attending summer science camps, along with other visitors, can have an up-close look at monarchs and other pollinators.

“I envisioned just a giant field of nectar plants and milkweed,” Gagnon said. “But they wanted it to be more interactive, educational.”

Dozens of 8-foot by 8-foot plots have been created in the first two phases of Monarch Meadow, which are nearing completion. A third phase is being planned as an open wildflower meadow.

“We had been using it (the property) as an example of a grassland, but it’s kind of small,” John said. “It was just a meadow that we had to mow. This is going to take more upkeep than simply mowing, but we could get science projects from this. We’ve got some support. We’ve got community interest.”

Way station

The Brays hope to have the property added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife list of monarch way stations, where the butterflies can eat, reproduce and migrate.

“It’s almost like if you’re going somewhere like New England, you expect a gas station every 10 miles,” Gagnon said. “Anybody can plant zinnias and flowers just for the gas, and the nurseries are milkweed. They need them all along the route.”

Gagnon has grown hundreds of plants to supply the new way station, beginning with seeds cultivated inside and outside his home in Greenville’s Planter’s Trail neighborhood. He began three months ago, using grow lights to nurture everything from nectar plants to common milkweed, which he grows in pots due to its invasive nature. Now he is delivering plants to Monarch Meadow, where he is transplanting them to different plots.

“It’s a good thing I grew up working in a tobacco field,” he said as he dug a hole for a transplant earlier this week, when temperatures were above 90 degrees.

“I’d been doing them (plants) here already three years myself,” Gagnon said. “It’s the same steps. It’s just multiply it by 10.”

Capable of laying hundreds of eggs over a period of a few weeks, monarchs release each tiny egg under the bottom of a milkweed leaf. Within five days, the caterpillar eats its way out and begins feeding on milkweed. But fully-formed monarchs require nectar.

“She’ll come in,” Gagnon said of the adult female monarch, “and if you don’t have something for her to eat, she’ll take off because she’s hungry and she’s going to leave to find some flowers.”

Gagnon expects that Monarch Meadow will produce abundant food for monarchs and their offspring.

“They’re going to have a forest of milkweed at some point,” he said. “If people call and say, ‘I’ve planted a milkweed plant but I didn’t plant enough, and I’ve got 15 caterpillars gnawing the stems down to the trunk,’ I’ll say, ‘Bring them out here. We’ve got plenty.’

“It will be like a caterpillar rehabilitation center, a place for them to go and finish off their cycle.”

Rustic living

Over the last three years, the Gagnons have released nearly 300 monarchs from eggs laid on milkweed plants in their yard. But unlike the caterpillars that complete their transformations in the comfort of the Gagnons’ home, those at Monarch Meadow are likely to have more rustic accommodations.

“He is not (bringing them here),” Sue said in an interview. “The planting, the seeds, all the milkweed is nothing compared to what it’s like from August to September with the eggs or caterpillars and chrysalis. It is just nonstop.”

While most of the caterpillars at Monarch Meadow will be allowed to remain outdoors, Nancy is prepared to raise some inside in order to protect them from predators and to provide education for visitors.

“It bothered me, at first, to keep things that I though should be free in a cage,” she said. “Then I learned that 5 percent lived because they have so many predators.”

Gagnon sees the intervention as not only acceptable but necessary considering the fact that habitat loss and pesticide use are among contributors to the decline of the species.

“I don’t feel too poorly about man getting involved in this because it’s man that got them in this situation in the first place,” he said. “So we need to intervene.”

For more information about Monarch Meadow or to sponsor a plot in the butterfly habitat at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences at Contentnea Creek, visit atimeforscience.org/monarch-meadows.

Contact Kim Grizzard at kgrizzard@reflector.com or call 329-9578.