Know your neighbor: Coya Steele Silverlake

Helping monarch butterflies survive and thrive

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'It starts with one caterpillar," said Coya Steele Silverlake during a late November interview in El Prado, of her fondness for and fascination with the monarch butterfly.

"My involvement with the butterflies isn't a recent accidental situation," Steele Silverlake said. "In my youth, my 4-H project involved bugs. I majored in zoology in college. In October 2014, I was fortunate to attend a presentation at the Highlands Nature Center for Natural History in Prescott, Arizona.

"The presentation featured the importance and necessity of milkweed for the life of a monarch butterfly," she said. "Leaves and flowers of the milkweed plant (stalks, if tender) in native soil, keeping it drained and fresh, helps promote health for the stages of metamorphosis. It is important to get the milkweed in the ground as soon as possible to keep the roots intact during the transplanting process. Shoots will emerge eight to twelve inches from the parent plant. The adult female only lays eggs on the leaf of the milkweed plant."

"Some people have the system figured out, and this promotes a tagging program to keep track of the butterflies," said Steele Silverlake.

The monarch butterfly enthusiast authored an article in July 2016 entitled "Monarch Butterflies and Horsetail Milkweed." In the article, her description of the butterfly complements Steele Silverlake's photography. "The male adult monarch has an orange body with black veins and white dots on the black coloring," she wrote. "Males also possess an enlarged area or vein of secondary wings that looks like a mitt or hand (pheromone pockets). The females don't have pockets."

Steele Silverlake shared a timeline to help the lay person understand the butterfly's metamorphosis from egg to caterpillar over six to eight weeks. For four days, the form rests in the egg munching on milkweed. The caterpillar-larvae stage lasts two weeks while the caterpillar comes to life inside the chrysalis (pupa) for 10 days until a beautiful monarch butterfly emerges. It takes a few hours for it to pump up its wings.

Likewise, Steele Silverlake's timeline honors the lives of several generations of monarch butterflies. In February and March, they hibernate in southern California and Mexico. In March and April, the first generation of monarchs is born, live and dies. The same actions occur to a second generation in May and June; the third generation undergoes the same process in July and August. September and October experiences the fourth generation which dies only after it mates and lays eggs.

The butterflies migrate south for six to seven months when they begin awakening and mating in February and March of the next spring, starting the multi-generational cycle all over again. "It takes a few generations for the butterflies to get up north as far as Canada," said Coya.

In Prescott, Arizona, Coya participated in lectures, collecting and selling milkweed seeds and spreading the word that pesticides affect pollination. She helped host monarch migrations to California and Mexico where the butterflies would fly 500 miles at the rate of 50 miles per day.

Back in New Mexico, Steele Silvelake found indigenous milkweed, of the horsetail and showy broadleaf varieties, especially in Arroyo Seco. This summer, Coya attended the Fourth of July Parade in Arroyo Seco. She was especially pleased to see a monarch butterfly float. The float focused on the Farm to School Program, and after checking into the situation further, Steele Silverlake learned about the Farmhouse Café and the owner Micah Roseberry. Coya sought out Roseberry at the restaurant and discussed their affinity for and promotion of the preservation of monarch butterflies and the milkweed that feeds them. Now Steele Silverlake shares milkweed seeds at the Farm Store, next to the Farmhouse Café. For more information on how you may help, or for informational purposes, contact Silverlake at twangheart@yahoo.com.

Stone Silverlake experienced a wonderful happening this past October. She found a caterpillar, gathered it up, took it home and fed it live milkweed in 'invasive' water. "Cold slows down the metamorphosis, and it takes longer to form the chrysalis, probably the difference of two weeks instead of 10 days. She emerged perfect and beautiful, and I named the monarch that formed Hektor, meaning restraint in Greek mythology. When I felt Hektor was ready, I took her to Velarde because it was too cold in Taos. I took her to Velarde where the flowers were still blooming. When I released her, she looked so beautiful that it was like watching in the movies."

"Upon release, the monarch flew up high and glided. I couldn't get over it because this was Hektor's first flight and it was so strong and beautiful, and I'm glad I took a movie of the whole event," Steele Silverlake said. "It only takes one. Then, you're hooked."

The monarch aficionado hopes to offer presentations to inform the public of 10 varieties of flowers of nectar feeding plants and milkweed for the monarch's way stations. A number of websites provide information, such as monarchwatch.org and swmonarchs.org. The sites include information regarding places, seeds, life cycle, migration and photos.

Steele Silverlake professes to love New Mexico. Besides living in the Taos area and helping monarchs, she has resided in Santa Fe, Velarde and Española. She has worked as a licensed massage therapist, promotes natural healing and serves as an animal communicator.

She belongs to Hands and Hearts, a knitting group that produces items for premature babies, other infants and patients in hospitals and the Taos Living Center. The members meet at Farm House Café on Thursday afternoons and accept donations of yarn and money. As a songwriter, she performed at Santa Fe's La Casa Sena and opened for Buffy St. Marie at Santa Fe's Greer Carson Theater and in Kauai, Hawaii. As a square dance caller in her youth, she won a championship title.

A native of Clayton County, Georgia, Coya recalls when her parents purchased land from their relative Margaret Mitchell, author of "Gone With the Wind". They built a big brick house similar to Mitchell's amidst magnolia trees and gardenia bushes, much like a mini Tara.

Steele Silverlake encourages the public to join in the monarch butterfly interests. "All of this is about bringing back the monarch butterfly because of the diminished population. The numbers of the population occurred due to pesticides and the reduction of forage. Remember … it just takes one. "

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