One would be hard-pressed to find an individual who had never heard of, let alone seen, a monarch butterfly before. They are one of the most identifiable butterfly species in North America; one could even argue they are one of the most identifiable of any and all North American species−period. The color pattern of vibrant orange on their wings contrasts magnificently with their jet-black stripes and white spots. Their name, too, elicits beauty and a sort of dignity. Through and through they are a spectacular species admired by scientists, nature enthusiasts, and everyday citizens alike.
However, despite their notoriety and once prolific numbers, over the last three decades their abundance has dropped precipitously throughout North America. For instance, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, monarch numbers have declined by more than 80% in the East and an even more staggering 99.4% in coastal California, from an estimated 4.5 million there in the 1980s to as little as 28,429 as of January 2019. Multiple factors have contributed to this sharp decline, but a few in particular stand out.
As many people know, you can’t have thriving monarch populations without prodigious quantities of milkweed. Monarchs use this plant as breeding habitat, and it is also the only plant their caterpillars will eat. Without it, the foundation of a healthy monarch colony vanishes, and we subsequently witness a likewise disappearance in the monarchs themselves.
So what has been the number one cause of the loss of milkweed you might ask? Well, the answer will probably not shock you; it is largely due to the use of pesticides. In particular, it is an herbicide called glyphosate, commonly known as Roundup™ Ready Crops, which is sprayed on crops (i.e. soy and corn). These crops are genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate and thus suffer no adverse effects from it. Therefore, glyphosate’s purpose is to kill any weeds and insects that might inhibit or destroy crops like the aforementioned soy and corn. However, this herbicide also kills non-target insects and plants such as milkweed, thereby decimating milkweed abundance and likewise negatively affecting monarch reproduction. Beyond this, glyphosate kills nectar producing plants that monarch adults need for food.
Another threat to monarchs has been legal and illegal logging in places like the oyamel fir forests of Mexico, which has contributed to a general loss of area at overwintering sites. Due to a reduction of forest habitat, monarchs have fewer places to shelter in during the winter. Without this cover, they are more likely to succumb to the cold temperatures and precipitation of winter. Additionally, development of land in California has negatively impacted their numbers for essentially similar reasons.
Last but not least, and as you may have already surmised, it is believed that climate change is having a deleterious effect on them. Although in their case, it is not necessarily warming temperatures that hurt them; it is more the harsher, unpredictable winters that are leading to their demise. Combine that with the loss of habitat in places like Mexico and California−habitat that ordinarily would help buffer and shield them from inclement weather−and one can easily ascertain why the wild fluctuations in weather could impact them so greatly.
So, thus far we have discussed the monarchs’ widespread adulation and some of the roots of their downfall. But what about their conservation? After all, that’s what we really want to hear about! Thankfully, there are plenty of people from a broad range of disciplines working to create habitat, educate citizens, and better understand the monarchs’ biology in order to ensure their long-term survival.
First and foremost, two of the websites I have found excellent information on concerning monarchs, and whose organizations do incredible conservation work for them, are the following: Monarch Joint Venture and Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. I can’t possibly cover all of the research projects they support or directly undertake, so I strongly encourage anyone reading this to check them out.
However, I will discuss some of their efforts here. For example, one of Xerces Society’s conservation projects is called Project Milkweed. As the name suggests, the main goal of this project is to increase milkweed habitat, and they are trying to do this by producing new sources of milkweed seed in areas of the monarch’s breeding range where seed has not been reliably available: California, the Great Basin, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida. Furthermore, the Xerces Society, in collaboration with the Monarch Joint Venture, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and private foundations, is working to educate the public on the importance of milkweed to the monarchs’ survival.
The Monarch Joint Venture offers a tremendous opportunity for everyday citizens to participate in the “research aspect” of conservation via a Citizen Science project. Literally anyone interested in partaking and aiding the monarch cause can do so. In fact, much of the information that scientists use to track the status of monarch breeding and migration comes from research done by citizen scientists. (I worked for a state-funded environmental organization and can verify that citizen science data is extremely vital to the cause!). If anyone reading this is interested in working as a citizen scientist on behalf of the monarchs, I strongly urge you to click on the previous link in this paragraph, which will take you to a brochure that succinctly describes everything you would need to do to get involved. As examples, part of your work could include taking pictures of monarchs and/or placing stickers with identifiable numbers on the wings of wild or domestically reared monarchs. Either choice sounds awesome to me!
A less discussed but nonetheless crucial action that any individual can take is to foster plants that produce nectar rich flowers, which adult monarchs need in order to supply the energy to fuel their busy lives. While there are myriad plants that are beneficial to the monarch, depending on what ecosystem you live in, you may want to plant one variety over another. For instance, my residence falls in the Great Lakes Ecosystem, so some of the recommended types for me to plant are the following: Butterfly, Common, or Swamp milkweed in the summer; Black-eyed Susan, Ontario blazing star, and Showy goldenrod in the summer to fall; and Aromatic aster, New England aster, and Maximilian sunflower in the fall.
Please note; the aforementioned list is by no means exhaustive and even within my ecosystem some areas are better for certain varieties over others. Though, if you would like to find out more about the plants that are best suited for the Great Lakes Ecosystem or any other one throughout the U.S. please check out a full listing at Xerces nectar plant guides for monarchs. These lists are continually being updated, so suggestions and listings may change periodically. Regardless, get out and plant! You’ll be helping many other species in addition to monarchs.
There we have it. The monarch is a simple, yet awe-inspiring and beautiful species that traverses thousands of miles throughout a given year in order to survive. (Also, if you want further proof of their magnificence, here is a short but really neat video of a monarch emerging from its chrysalis.)
Thus, while the monarch has fallen upon arduous times in recent decades, it is not too late to alter or wholly eliminate many of the deleterious practices that threaten their survival. Really, the best way you or anyone else can help them is to become educated on the species and the difficulties they face and to help in any way possible, whether that be planting milkweed and other nectar producing plants or taking pictures of monarchs and submitting them to citizen science projects. The opportunities to effect change are myriad; in fact, voicing your concerns to your local leaders and politicians is another impactful way to raise awareness. Regardless of what path you choose, I hope you will find a desire within you to aid this fascinating species in their survival.
What monarch conservation efforts have you heard of in your area or elsewhere?
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