August 2, 2022

Stepping Up To Serve: Retired MEMA Director continues to build safe-havens…for Monarch Butterflies

Mary Apel

Recently, it has been brought to international attention that the Monarch Butterfly is in trouble.

As previously reported, Monarch butterflies were put on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, where they are now classified as endangered. The massive decline in numbers is due to loss of habitat caused by urban development, pesticides, and climate woes. The reasons such decline is concerning are numerous, and experts have called this “the canary in the coal mine” for other species. What the butterflies need to survive is a safe place to land, literally.

Robert Latham, Jr., former executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, is no stranger to creating safe habitats. During his long service career, he led the people of Mississippi through countless difficult times, including Hurricane Katrina. Prior to joining MEMA in 2000, Latham was the local director of the Tate County Emergency Management Agency, and served as fire chief in Senatobia as well as with the Mississippi Army National Guard. Upon his retirement from MEMA in 2015, Latham wrote, “I have seen Mississippians when things couldn’t be any worse. I have never seen a more resilient group of people. They have taught me so much about strength and perseverance.”

Perhaps it is this steadfast faith in such resilience that led Robert and his wife Charlotte to Monarch butterflies. It’s rooted in the belief that people can change the world around them, even through small daily acts… even just by planting a garden. For this couple, what initially began with one milkweed plant from a local farmers market, has turned into a flourishing sanctuary created by the couple for the migratory butterflies. After watching the first one grow and fly off, they both said, “Hey, we can do this!” And so began a backyard effort to protect this beloved species. When asked if there was hope to turn things around for the Monarchs, Robert said optimistically, “It will take a lot of work…But yes!”

Photos of Monarchs from the Lathams

The work involved in a butterfly garden can range from minimal maintenance–such as adding a milkweed plant to existing pots outside–to growing vast yards of plants or building a butterfly shelter. The work involved in tending the caterpillars and butterflies, however, can be more intensive. Charlotte humbly described what can only be called a labor of love, in that it isn’t always glamorous. “They poop! A LOT,” she laughs. “And they EAT a lot!” The caterpillars are, in fact, very hungry. (Monarch caterpillars have been known to devour a whole milkweed leaf in under five minutes. They eat 200 times their weight in milkweed.)

This storied appetite is one reason they are in trouble: “The biggest problem right now is that the milkweed, their total sustaining force, is being done away with. Their habitat is dwindling away,” said Charlotte. Insecticides used for farming in the area contribute greatly to habitat loss. Urban and suburban development have affected the migration, as well. Where the Lathams live, the neighborhoods going up around Memphis have drastically reduced the natural foliage where Monarchs would have stopped to lay eggs. The solution? “Plant milkweed!” she reiterated. “This is the thing monarchs eat.. caterpillars eat the milkweed leaves. They come in at a quarter of an inch, and some are two inches, and they are all eating nonstop. So you have to keep at it.”

The Latham’s yard
The Latham’s yard

The habitat that Robert built for her has raised and released up to 70 butterflies in one season. These results, however, come with a delicate balance. The urge is to help, but you can’t help too much. Aphids are a major threat to milkweed, for example, but spraying to kill them will harm the caterpillars as well. And as children are often warned when a new butterfly begins to emerge from its cocoon, it must be left to do so on its own. Helping it out could damage its wings, threaten its future.

That this hobby would turn into a passion for the couple should come as no surprise. The Monarch’s life-cycle itself represents hope, and renewal, and what happens when a group works together towards a common goal. These are the same themes Robert and Charlotte have spent their lives supporting. The butterflies’ yearly migration spans four generations and up to 3,000 miles. The Monarchs that leave the Lathams’ yard won’t make it to Mexico, but their offspring will.

Robert and Charlotte

At the time of our conversation, Robert had checked the plants for eggs and had not yet seen any. He was slightly concerned, he said, as it’s the time of year they should arrive. There was cautious but contagious optimism in his voice, though, that of someone who understands the power of Nature to prevail.

“Forming the Chrysalis is really the most amazing part to me,” he said.

Robert and Charlotte have incredible knowledge about the species and their habits. He knows that they like altitude, and when the time comes he’ll move sticks to higher areas of the habitat where they can complete their transformation.

And then, for a moment, he waits.

“It happens in the blink of an eye… suddenly they are butterflies.”

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Stepping Up to Serve is sponsored by our friends at Ramey’s, The Sheriff’s App, and Community Bank.

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