Monarch butterflies are on the move. In one of Nature’s most spectacular events, billions of these wonderful insects are starting to migrate from many parts of the U.S. and Canada down to the California coast and Mexico.
The entire process is amazing. First, they emerge from their cocoon (called a chrysalis). Immediately, they start feeding so they can fatten up enough to withstand their journey. Most monarchs will fly around 3,000 miles to their winter breeding grounds, and they’ll need food and shelter as they go. Ultimately, they’ll end up congregating in swaths of forests. Butterflies coming from west of the Rocky Mountains will alight in coastal California. Those coming from east of the Rockies will find their way to central Mexico. There they’ll stay, carpeting the trees, until next spring.
Though this process has been going on for eons, this past century has been very tough on monarchs, and their numbers are taking a toll. In Mexico, the area of forest monarchs occupied last winter shrank to just 1.65 acres. That’s almost 50% less than what it was the previous year, reports National Wildlife Federation, and far lower than the 45 acres monarchs filled during the mid-1990s. In California, says NWF, the number of monarchs wintering along the coast has declined by nearly 90 percent since the mid-1990s.
Why the decline in population? Monarchs are just as susceptible to climate change and extreme weather events as we all are, but they face additional threats as well. The more fields are planted with genetically-modified crops, the bigger the impact seems to be on all kinds of pollinating insects, butterflies included. Intensive farming to grow corn and soybeans for bio fuels, illegal logging, and suburban sprawl are eating up butterfly habitat, too.
Fortunately, you can make a difference. Here’s how:
1) Plant milkweed bushes that are native to your region. Milkweed acts as a host plant for monarch caterpillars and provides nectar for adult monarchs as well as other pollinators. You can figure out which milkweed is native to your area here. You can probably find milkweed plants ready to transplant into your yard or garden at your local garden center. Otherwise, order transplant “plugs” or seeds online.
2) Grow other native plants that bloom during the migration season. Butterflies need nourishment throughout their migration path. They get that nourishment from the nectar in flower blooms. Again, check with your garden center or county agricultural extension service for recommendations. Asters, goldenrods, sunflowers, and blazing stars are late bloomers that will help quench a monarch’s thirst.
3) Garden organically. Monarchs and many other insects and birds are highly susceptible to pesticides, especially “systemic” pesticides like neonicotinoids. Instead of spraying insecticides widely, can you remove them by hand? I often use my garden gloves to wipe pests off stems and leaves, and to crush larger bugs. I don’t worry about getting rid of every pest. My goal is to keep their populations under enough control that they don’t get out of hand and the flowers can still bloom. Why not give that approach a try?
4) Get your community involved. Many towns and cities have done a great job protecting their trees. Why not do the same for milkweed? Encourage your friends and neighbors to plant milkweed bushes on their own property as well as in community spaces. Set up a Facebook or Pinterest page so people can post pictures of the monarchs that visit their milkweed plants.
5) Choose GMO-free corn and soybean products. Shift your spending to oils and other processed foods that are not made from corn or soybean products grown from the genetically modified seed that seems to be harming monarch butterfly populations.
Protect Monarch Butterflies from Monsanto and GM crops by signing this Care2 petition.