Some scientists say it’s a sign of the decline of the species. Others point to population surveys indicating that the population is stable, but the monarchs are not migrating.
Are we to lose one of nature’s spectacles?
Either way, there has been a very conspicuous absence of monarch butterflies at The Fells. As a designated Monarch Way Station, we have purposefully left our “meadow” area untouched and left it in its natural state. There are a large number of milkweeds, as well as an abundance of nectar producing plants. All the right ingredients were in place. I went into the meadow late July to look for signs of monarch larvae. I was unable to find any sign of eggs, larvae or even signs of larvae feeding on the milkweed.
We were prepared to net, tag and release as many monarchs as we could and send the information to Monarch Watch, a group of researchers and volunteers dedicated to the study of the monarch butterfly, but come August there was still no sign of any monarchs. There were signs of cabbage butterflies, even several painted ladies, and a prolific number of bees. But not a monarch was to be seen. Since we were not able to collect and study any monarchs from the gardens, I contacted Monarch Watch to purchase larvae for the Ecology Room. After three weeks, I received a notice that they were experiencing a decline in the number of larvae they were able to collect as well. The monarchs were just not reproducing. This I found most troubling.
There has been a 90% decline in the monarch population in the past 20 years. During the 1996-1997 season it was estimated that monarch colonies occupied about 20.97 hectares (100 acres or 10,000 sq. miles). Last season, 2013-2014, monarchs covered only 0.67 hectares. In addition, there was a 56% decline in the population from 2013 to 2014. Scientists have been concerned enough to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to include the monarchs on the Endangered Species List.
Scientists speculate reasons for the population decline. Climate and weather fluctuations and loss of habitat are major contributors.
Monarch butterflies are very sensitive to weather conditions. The monarchs migrate to warmer temperatures and cluster in colonies on the tops of trees for protection from the elements and to provide more warmth to each other. A monarch butterfly has difficulty moving in temperatures below 55° F. As temperatures decline, the butterfly becomes paralyzed. Strong winds and heavy rain will blow many of the monarchs from the clusters to the forest floor, where they are more susceptible to dew, colder temperatures and even frost or snow. Climate change is also impacting the propagation of monarch populations. In the past, enormous Pacific systems produced by El Niño have moved into Central Mexico during January and February producing heavy rains, hail, high winds and freezing temperatures. In 1992, 70% of wintering monarchs froze to death after a storm of strong winds and heavy rainfall.
Loss of habitat is also a major factor in the specie’s declining numbers. The monarch is losing both winter and summer habitats. During the winter, monarch butterflies cluster together in colonies in the pine and fir forests of Central Mexico. Many of these forests have disappeared due to excessive logging projects, and only a dozen of these sites remain. In the U.S. and Canada, milkweed, a food and breeding staple, is disappearing from the landscapes. Herbicides used on crops are killing milkweed. The presences of milkweed in a cultivated field will reduce crop yield. Crops have been genetically engineered to be unaffected by the use of strong herbicides. As a result, farmers can apply them indiscriminately to their fields without harming corn or soybean crops. Before the use of herbicide, farmers had to till the weeds from the fields. It was time consuming work and 20-40 plants per acre survived. The use of herbicide can reduce milkweed by 58% with a lot less work and effort on the farmer’s part.
The governments of Mexico, Canada and the United States have recognized the crisis and have initiated steps to combat the species decline. Mexico has created a Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, designating a protected area in central Mexico to host the majority of wintering monarchs. To combat the specie’s decline, on November 12, 2015, The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $4 million conservation plan to protect the habitat of the monarch in the Midwest and Southern Great Plains. Farmers in both the U.S. and Canada are being urged to put aside portions of their land to allow for growth of milkweed.
Individuals are also urged to help. People can plant milkweed and other nectar plants to create a “monarch way station” in your community. Seed kits and detailed guides are available through Monarch Watch (800-780-9986 or through the web www.monarchwatch.org ).
So why all the fuss about one species of butterfly? One scientist stated that the monarch butterfly is the “canary in the cornfield” indicating problems for all insects, especially for our pollinators. “The Monarch is a symbol of a bigger biological problem”. Loss of habitat, climate changes and use of herbicides and pesticides are having a huge impact on the ecosystems that support our food supply. We live in a world where there is a very delicate balance among All plants and All creatures. We need to be aware and maintain that balance through consciousness of efforts and education, especially to our children.
The Education Department at The Fells will also be joining the initiative to support the preservation of the monarch population. Habitat preservation and education will be the goals for next year. We will continue to maintain the Monarch Way Station at our site. We are planning an educational display in the John Hay Ecology Room where visitors can witness the metamorphous of the monarch larva. Children’s workshops will be provided to educate area students about the monarch butterfly and the importance of milkweed plants. To quote Rachel Carson, “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species — man — acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.” We want to educate the children to acquire the knowledge and power to be good stewards of our world, even if it starts with one species of butterfly.