Have you ever seen one of these? It’s a Monarch Butterfly. Every spring, millions fly from Mexico and southern California to other parts of the US and southern Canada. And every autumn, they fly back. On the first of November, called the Day of the Dead, people celebrate the return of the monarchs to the mountainous fir forests of Central Mexico.
But their numbers are dropping. In 1997, there were 150 million. Last year there were only 60 million. One problem is the gradual sterilization of American farmlands thanks to powerful herbicides like Roundup. Monarch butterfly larvae eat a plant called milkweed. But the amount of this plant in Iowa, for example, has dropped between 60% and 90% over the last decade.
And this year was much worse for the monarchs. They came late to Mexico… and I think only 3 million have been seen so far! That’s a stunning decrease!
Some blame the intense drought that hit the US in recent years—the sort of drought we can expect to become more frequent as global warming proceeds.
Earlier this year, Michael Risnit wrote this in USA Today:
Illegal logging in the Mexican forests where they spend the winter, new climate patterns and the disappearance of milkweed—the only plant on which monarchs lay their eggs and on which their caterpillars feed—are being blamed for their shrinking numbers.
Brooke Beebe, former director of the Native Plant Center at Westchester Community College in Valhalla, N.Y., collects monarch eggs, raises them from caterpillar to butterfly and releases them.
“I do that when they’re here. They’re not here,” she said.
The alarm over disappearing monarchs intensified this spring when conservation organizations reported that the amount of Mexican forest the butterflies occupied was at its lowest in 20 years. The World Wildlife Fund, in partnership with a Mexican wireless company and Mexico’s National Commission of Protected Areas, found nine hibernating colonies occupied almost 3 acres during the 2012-13 winter, a 59% decrease from the previous winter.
Because the insects can’t be counted individually, the colonies’ total size is used. Almost 20 years ago, the colonies covered about 45 acres. A couple of acres contains millions of monarchs.
“The monarch population is pretty strong, except it’s not as strong as it used to be and we find out it keeps getting smaller and smaller,” said Travis Brady, the education director at the Greenburgh Nature Center here.
Monarchs arrived at the nature center later this year and in fewer numbers, Brady said.
The nature center’s butterfly house this summer was aflutter with red admirals, giant swallowtails, painted ladies and monarchs, among others. But the last were difficult to obtain because collectors supplying the center had trouble finding monarch eggs in the wild, he said.
No one is suggesting monarchs will become extinct. The concern is whether the annual migration will remain sustainable, said Jeffrey Glassberg, the North American Butterfly Association’s president.
The record low shouldn’t set off a panic, said Marianna T. Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center in Texas, a project of the butterfly association.
“It should certainly get some attention,” she said. “I do think the disappearance of milkweed nationwide needs to be addressed. If you want to have monarchs, you have to have milkweed.”
Milkweed is often not part of suburban landscape, succumbing to lawn mowers and weed whackers, monarch advocates point out. Without it, monarch eggs aren’t laid and monarch caterpillars can’t feed and develop into winged adults.
“Many people know milkweed, and many people like it,” said Brady at the nature center. “And a lot of people actively try to destroy it. The health of the monarch population is solely dependent on the milkweed plant.”
The widespread use of herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans, which has resulted in the loss of more than 80 million acres of monarch habitat in recent years, also threatens the plant, according to the website Monarch Watch. In spraying fields to eradicate unwanted plants, Midwest farmers also eliminate butterflies’ habitat.
The 2012 drought and wildfires in Texas also made butterfly life difficult. All monarchs heading to or from the eastern two-thirds of the country pass through the state.
I may seem like a math nerd, but I’m out there every weekend gardening. My wife Lisa is the real driving force behind this operation, but I’ve learned to love working with plants, soil, and compost. The best thing we ever did is tear out the lawn. Lawns are boring, let native plants flourish! Even if you don’t like insects, birds eat them, and you’ve gotta like birds. Let the beauty of nature start right where you live.