I’ve always been charmed by the beauty of the Monarch butterfly. I’m not alone: it is the state butterfly of Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, Texas, Vermont and West Virginia. It’s been on my “bucket list” to go watch their migration to Mexico one day. But I was in no hurry to do it. Like with all things that seem eternal, it felt like the Monarchs would always be there. This year I learned that the Monarch is in steep decline.
The reason is simple: decimation of its one host plant, milkweed. As its name implies, milkweed has always grown freely, weed-like, in fields and alongside crops. But new genetically engineered crops bred to resist herbicides mean that crops are now getting sprayed with a lot more “weed” killer. And one of the things being killed off is milkweed, a non-harmful and non-invasive native plant, the only place Monarchs will lay eggs.
Monarchs have a four-part life cycle. In February and March, the final generation of Monarchs come out of hibernation and find a mate. They migrate north and east to find a place to lay their eggs. Since they will only lay eggs in milkweed, if they can’t find it, they die off without laying eggs. The second generation of Monarchs is born in May and June from the eggs of the hibernators. They also only live two to six weeks, leaving eggs on milkweed that will become the next generation. The fourth and final generation is born in September in October. This generation doesn’t die off, but flies to its hibernation grounds in California and Mexico where it will live for six to eight months until it’s time to start all over again. All along the way, Monarchs need milkweed. They feed on other plants but only reproduce with the help of milkweed.
What can be done? Reforming factory farming is the obvious answer, but not an easy one, of course. One thing I’ve done is plant milkweed. Will my three plants save the Monarch? Obviously not. So I’ve started to talk to people in town about planting it in their gardens too. We are organizing an effort to put a milkweed plant in every garden in our small New Jersey town. Even if I’m successful in putting a milkweed plant in every garden of my 8,000 resident town that won’t do the trick either. But it’s a start. The other thing we can do is tell the story of the Monarch so that other people will pitch in and help.
We’ve heard a lot about the mysterious colony collapse disorder in bees, as yet not fully understood but resulting in seriously reduced numbers of bees. Now it appears that the Monarch butterfly is in trouble. It seems that nature is trying to tell us to go back to sustainable practices that don’t destroy the land. My little patch of earth has not had a pesticide or herbicide on it in 14 years, but, alas, I am just one person in a minority. Until we all understand how all life is interconnected, we may keep seeing our most cherished creatures threatened in ways we can’t yet foresee.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
- Read a far more eloquent and scientific explanation of what’ s happening in an interview with University of Kansas insect ecologist Orley R. “Chip” Taylor. Click here.
- Buy milkweed at your local nursery or click here for seeds. You can buy common milkweed, showy milkweed or swampy milkweed. They like it all and it’s easy to grow. It comes back year after year.
- Tell your friends to plant milkweed and give milkweed plants as gifts!