Its flight has been described as "slow and sailing", and its wings feature an easily recognizable orange and black pattern. We all have witnessed their beauty at one time or another in our lives, however there is a tragic and rapid decline of this once common and widespread species -The Monarch Butterfly.
North American monarchs are the only butterflies that make a massive, multi-generational migration journey covering thousands of miles! In the fall, the butterflies leave roosts as far north as Canada and head south into Mexico for the winter. In the spring, monarchs head back north. It's amazing how the butterflies find their way year after year, considering this is a one-way trip for the migrating monarchs. Whether they are heading north or south, they have never made the journey before, because the lifespan of a monarch butterfly is only 4 - 6 weeks.
The Decline of the Monarch Butterfly
An 1850s observer of the monarch migration in the Mississippi Valley reported so many monarchs that clouds of them darkened the sky. An early account in California described tree branches breaking under the weight of so many gathered monarchs. However, from habitat loss to global warming to pollution, monarch butterflies face a host of threats that have negatively impacted the species. The threats that it faces are so large in scale that its population has declined by 90 percent since the 20-year average in the mid-1990s. If monarchs were people, that would be like losing every living person in the United States except those in Florida and Ohio!
Texas Legislature named the butterflies the state insect in 1995 because Texas is a critical breeding, wintering and migration corridor for the monarchs. Because the monarch population is basically in a downward spiral, getting milkweed in the ground is the most important thing.
No Milkweed Means No Monarch
One of the biggest hurdles the butterflies face has been the decline of milkweed. Without milkweed there simply aren't any other monarchs, because it's the only plant food the butterflies use as caterpillars, AND it's the sole breeding plant where the monarchs lay their eggs. Milkweed is a bulbous plant that can weather farmers' plows that turn it over in the soil. However nowadays farmers spray down soil with chemicals that milkweed cannot tolerate, specifically Monsanto Roundup.
How Can Individuals Help Monarchs?
Because the monarch population is basically in a downward spiral, getting milkweed in the ground is the most important thing. People can help monarchs by:
- Planting milkweed species native to the region where they live that haven't been treated with pesticides.
- Not using pesticides on their lawns and gardens.
- Choose foods, especially corn and soy, that are organic and that have not been genetically engineered. Increased pesticide use to grow corn and soybeans is the primary factor driving monarch decline.
So this spring, DO YOUR PART, even if its just in your backyard. You can plant carefully selected native milkweed and create a monarch butterfly haven in your backyard. Planting milkweed is a great way to help other pollinators too, as they provide valuable nectar resources to a diverse suite of bees and butterflies, whose pollinating services maintain our ecosystems.
Recommended Milkweed species for the Houston/Conroe area:
- Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias Curassivica), sometimes called Scarlet Milkweed (Note: not a Texas native, but is more readily available in the nurseries here)
*There are even resources to have FREE milkweed shipped to you, such as this one: http://monarchwatch.org/milkweed/market/
It's also possible to start your own native milkweed by planting seeds. Note: Cold scarification seems to be a must so you need to put seeds in refrigerator for several weeks to have proper germination. A good source for Texas Native milkweed seeds is: Native American Seed - www.seedsource.com
Monarchs NEED Our Protection
Did you know that the passenger pigeon went extinct in the early 20th century despite the fact that in the late 19th century it was one of the most abundant birds in the country? There were flocks so numerous then that by some accounts they darkened the sky for up to 14 hours at a time! Faulty assumptions about the resiliency of once-common species can lead to lack of timely intervention, delays in protection, further population declines, greater recovery costs, or extinction.
The Monarch butterfly needs federal protection, and they could even gain Endangered Species Protection. Individuals can support a legal petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by signing onto a letter supporting the petition from the Center for Food Safety and the Center for Biological Diversity. The deadline to sign the petition was March 2nd, 2015!
There is something magical about monarch butterflies. Don't let our beloved Monarch butterfly become just a story of the past....
*To find out where to see monarchs as they pass through their migration routes, visit this website to track monarch migration and report your own sightings: Journey North Monarch Butterfly Tracking
Living Expression Landscapes can plant milkweed, or other butterfly and pollinator attracting plants for you if you haven't the time. Simply contact us: 281-681-8715.