When I was a little girl, I used to love seeing the dramatic orange and black monarch butterflies flitting around our yard. It was a fairly common sight, but each one was no less special. Now I may be all grown up with a car and a mortgage, but these treasures of our natural world still make me giddy. Only now, sadly, it’s rare to see a monarch butterfly in my yard. Where have they all gone?
Monarch butterflies have a fascinating migratory ritual each year. In the fall, they begin their long journey from Canada and the US down through the Great Plains and finally to Mexico, where they cluster by the thousands on trees in the Sierra Madre mountains for the winter. Wildlife enthusiasts travel there to see this awe-inspiring sight every year. In the spring, the butterflies start their journey north again. The journey is far too long for the monarchs to survive in their lifetime. Instead, they reproduce along the journey and lay eggs exclusively on milkweed plants that provide the only food source for larvae. The young hatch and continue the journey north only to fly back to Mexico a few months later.
The vigor of the migration in Mexico is measured in land area since the butterflies cluster so heavily together. At the peak of the migration in 1996, the monarchs covered nearly 45 acres of forest. In 2013, the winter migration measured just under 3 acres, and this past winter, it was down to only half of that – 1.65 acres.
This monarch butterfly decline is far too sharp for scientists to ignore or chalk up to natural causes. It’s been determined that the biggest threat to monarch butterfly populations is loss of habitat and specifically, loss of milkweed.
Milkweed is a plant that grows vigorously and is native to North America. It used to cover large areas of land and it even used to spring up between rows of crops in farmers’ fields. However, modern agriculture has played a large part in destroying milkweed.
Our government is subsidizing larger and larger areas of land to be converted to growing corn, some to be used for ethanol fuel but mostly as feed for industrially-raised meat. This converts land area once occupied by milkweed to more monoculture corn fields. And, the advent of GMO crops that are “RoundUp Ready” has all but put the nail in the coffin for this once prolific and very important plant.
Farmers can now spray tons of glyphosate (Monsanto’s RoundUp) on their fields which kills all plants except the genetically-modified corn or soy crops. Now, migrating monarch butterflies have nowhere to feed and lay their eggs and many perish from starvation before they have a chance to reproduce.
While some people can dismiss the monarch butterfly decline as inconsequential, I’m deeply saddened by it. We always hear about species that are in danger of vanishing but it seems like none of them hits as close to home as the monarch butterfly. It’s very possible that in our lifetime, we will see this once ubiquitous beauty disappear.
Now you’re probably wondering if there’s anything you can do to help. I wrote previously about how to attract butterflies to your yard, but here I need to amend my suggestions. It’s vitally important that you not only provide nectar for adult butterflies, but also food sources for their caterpillars.
For monarchs, that means milkweed. I’m incorporating lots of milkweed into my garden borders where I have the space, and I encourage you to do the same. I also planted milkweed at our previous home and we got monarchs and caterpillars the very first year. Just be prepared for the plants to get munched on heavily as the larvae develop. They may not look perfect, but they are serving a very important purpose. Encourage your local garden centers to stock lots of milkweed at affordable prices and tell everyone you know to plant it in their yard.
Finally, abandon and boycott all GMO products in your kitchen and your life. Many people are now getting educated about the personal health risks associated with GMO foods, but their dangers don’t stop there. They threaten the health of agricultural workers who are exposed to chemicals associated with growing GMO crops as they toil every day to provide our food. These same chemicals leach into our waterways contaminating our environment, killing our wildlife and wiping out safe food sources for monarch butterflies.
Sites That Link to this Post
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