Monarch Butterflies Are In Trouble: Can we help them?
Updated: Aug 28
It’s a Spring ritual. The old, weathered flowerpots are pulled out of the garage and the dry, clumpy soil from last season dumped out. The pots are cleaned with a healthy dose of soapy water and elbow grease. They look like clay pots, but they’re actually some kind of artificial material that is much more durable and lighter weight. River rocks or Styrofoam are used to line the bottom, then they're filled the rest of the way with potting soil. Newly purchased seed packets are carefully opened, and seeds scattered over the soil. This year they will be large zinnias that promise to have big, glorious blooms that will dazzle the eyes and attract butterflies from miles around.
The watering can is filled from the rain barrel and the seeds lightly watered. This daily chore continues until little seedlings peak their heads from the soil and start bending toward the light. Before long the seedlings are full healthy-looking plants with flower buds ready to burst open. At times I just stop, admire the plants, and remind myself that growing things is good for the soul.
The flowers finally bloom and they are magnificent. Big and round with vivid colors. I take pictures of them and use them as “wallpaper” for my phone and iPad. First there are a few blooms, then more the next day, and the next, and so on. I love looking at them and I want others to see them. I want them to say, “Wow your flowers are so pretty. Did you grow them from seed?” “Why yes I did.” I say while trying to maintain the required air of humility.
But my container garden is not complete. I’m hoping for non-human visitors. The first butterfly to find the flowers is a swallowtail; big, bright yellow, very photogenic. It is a welcome sight and cause for celebration. But deep down I’m hoping that a different butterfly species will also pay my zinnias a visit; one whose colors and pattern are quite different but just as spectacular.
Several days later, I’m pulling weeds in the vegetable garden, sweat dripping from my forehead. Everything is grown organically, which is good, but it means that there is a constant battle between me and the plethora of weeds that try to claim squatters’ rights between the tomatoes, green beans, and peppers. I lean back to wipe the sweat and get a sip of cool water, when from the corner of my eye I see it. At first, it’s a blurry image; the sweat has covered my glasses and everything looks hazy and indistinct. I quickly wipe them off, put them back on, and look again.
There she is, with black stripes, white dots, and the most gorgeous orange color on her majestic wings. I slowly stand, try to breathe slower, and quietly move closer. She is feeding from the zinnias. With surgical precision she is sliding her proboscis deep into the blooms to get the prized nectar. I feel a sense of gratitude. She’s feeding from my flowers, that I grew just for her.
As long as I can remember monarch butterflies have been revered by all. Pictures of them are everywhere, websites showcase them, and articles about them can be found in the mainstream media. They were named for England’s King William III who was also titled Prince of Orange, hence the connection. They are a splendid part of nature’s beauty and seeing them in your own garden is one of the highlights of the growing season.
Each year Eastern Monarch butterflies go on a fantastic voyage. These fragile little creatures with their thin, ultralight wings, migrate from the US to mountains in Mexico to escape winter’s cold. For some of them, it’s a distance of over 3000 miles. It’s an amazing journey guided by a type of magnetic compass in their antennae which steers them to their destinations. (Their sense of direction is way better than mine!) The beautiful butterflies gather in the same areas each year filling trees by the thousands. But as incredible as these insects are, their journey is becoming more and more treacherous, and their numbers are declining.
A lot of media attention is being paid to the Monarchs now, and for good reason. They are in trouble. Their numbers have been decreasing for years (see graph above). Many factors are working against them: fewer places to call home and reproduce, less food, changing environmental conditions, and chemical pollution with pesticides.
As a species, they are fighting for their life.
Imagine loading up the car and going on a vacation trip of 3000 miles. At first all goes well, but you soon realize there are no places to stop and get food, no gas stations, and no motels to spend the night. Where monarchs once had fields of flowers with an abundance of nectar, there are parking lots. Where there were milkweed plants for them to lay their eggs, there are farm fields laid bare by herbicides and pesticides. This is not a sustainable biological system.
Should We Help?
Some would ask: why should we spend time, energy and resources to save the monarchs? Isn't extinction of some species just the natural order of things? Yes it is, and we’ve seen extinction of many animals and plants in our world. But this is different. We want to intervene because we created the problem, and we should fix it.
There is precedence for our efforts to save a species. Consider the bald eagle, that majestic bird of prey and our national symbol. Contamination of the environment with the insecticide DDT decimated their populations. Ingestion of the toxin that had concentrated in fish made the eagles’ eggs too soft. Their reproduction failed and they became endangered. We found safer alternatives to DDT, made it illegal to kill the birds, and protected their habitats. Now they are thriving. Clearly in some cases we can undo the biological damage we’ve caused.
Monarchs benefit nature and us. Pollinators, such as butterflies and bees, are essential for reproduction of many plants and therefore play an important role in the environment and even agriculture. Although not a practical reason, we should also save them because they are beautiful. We capture their beauty in photographs, paintings, and jewelry. We gaze at them, marvel at their delicate bodies and intricate colors. It makes us feel good to be near something so stunning, and so gentle.
What Can We Do?
The problems monarchs face are more complicated than those of the bald eagles. We cannot just remove one factor, such as DDT, to turn around their diminishing numbers. It will take a coordinated effort on several fronts with efforts on a local and national level. Let’s look at what we can do:
Rebuild their habitat. Plant milkweed for them to lay their eggs and feed their caterpillars. Milkweed plants are readily available at many nurseries and home improvement centers. Plant flowers they prefer for food: butterfly bushes, zinnias, and cosmos. Suburbanites can plant butterfly gardens in their yards, and farmers can plant them in their marginal, non-production areas. (see Farmers for Monarchs) Get your children involved in your butterfly garden and teach them about the monarchs as a beautiful part of nature that we’re trying to help.
Reduce application of pesticides and herbicides. Become an organic gardener. Avoid applying pesticides and herbicides on gardens and lawns. Don’t let pest control companies convince you that all bugs are bad, and that your entire property should be sprayed with toxic chemicals. Reckless application of pesticides in the home and yard can make you sick, kill beneficial insects, and cause cancer in your pets.
Preserve grasslands and migratory corridors. Groups of government and private non-profit organizations are working to preserve habitat and essential stopover points for migrating monarchs. One is the “Route 35 Corridor” from Minnesota to Texas. Consider supporting organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, Monarch Joint Venture, and the Xerces Society that are working to preserve land that nurtures monarch butterflies.
Support listing monarch butterflies as endangered. The US Fish and Wildlife service recently designated monarch butterflies as “warranted to be listed as endangered” but said that other species currently take priority. Adding them to the list would give the butterflies legal protection and raise awareness of their rapidly worsening predicament.
Saving the monarch butterfly will preserve a small but beautiful part of the natural world. It is a noble effort; one that seeks to undo damage wrought by us. When we try to save a species like the monarchs, we proclaim that the role of humans on this earth is not to change nature, but to let nature change us.