Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Monarchs may need help; I want to do my part

Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
Monarch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When I was a little girl I lived in the city--in a south side Chicago neighborhood. During the summers, my brother and I played in the vacant lots where I can remember seeing an abundance of  those familiar orange, black, and white of the monarch butterflies as they flitted from one flower to another. Everywhere you turned your eyes, the view was filled with their delicate wisps of color.

There were always dozens of monarchs, fritillaries, swallowtails, and skippers along with bumble bees, dragonflies, bluebirds, to name a few. 

But times have changed. Even though I live in the woods now, I rarely see monarchs. In fact I haven’t seen one in two years.

I’m not alone.

The scientific community is concerned with the number of monarchs, the only North American butterfly known to migrate. Monarchs are rapidly dwindling in numbers. According to the NY Times, the number of monarchs over the past 15 years has lost as many as 81 percent between 1999 and 2010. Recovery has been slow. The spring of 2013 reported Mexican forests contained the fewest number of monarchs in 20 years. Some are concerned for the future of the species.

Several factors have contributed to the decline of these amazing insects, on both ends of their migratory path which ranges which takes these cold-blooded insects from northern Minnesota and Canada to Mexico.

In Mexico, the monarch’s winter habitat is being decimated by Illegal logging and climate change. “Earth Sky,” a daily radio series and blog about science and nature, reports that nine hibernating colonies occupied three acres during the 2012-2013 winter. But that isn’t the worst of it.

The life cycle of the monarch is reliant on milkweed, the plant on which the adult female lays her eggs. Milkweed is the only plant a monarch caterpillar can eat.

Milkweeds have long been considered a pest by both farmers and homeowners alike, resulting in record numbers of them being killed with herbicides. Glyphosate, the chemical contained in Roundup made by Monsanto, has effectively sterilized farm fields. Roundup Ready corn, soybeans, and other genetically-engineered crops have been modified to resist glyphosate. The result is that only the crop survives while everything else, including the only plant monarchs rely upon for survival, does not.

According to the NY Times, “there is a direct parallel between the demise of milkweeds--killed by the herbicide glyphosate, which is sprayed by the millions of gallons on fields where genetically modified crops are growing--and the steady drop in monarch numbers.

Some people interested in preserving the future of these amazing insects are trying to reverse this trend.

Monarch Watch, an educational outreach program based at the University of Kansas, engages citizen scientists in large-scale research projects. Since 1992, Monarch Watch involves 2,000 schools, nature centers, and other organizations across the United States and Canada. Monarchs are tagged and counted each fall.

“To assure a future for monarchs, conservation and restoration of milkweeds needs to become a national priority,” the group says on its website. They encourage the creation of Monarch Way stations in backyards all across the country.
English: Migrating Monarch butterflies (Danaus...
Migrating Monarch butterflies  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They hope to preserve the species and continue the spectacular monarch migration phenomenon.

I have ordered my own milkweed seeds. I really am anxious to do my part to help. I have a few milkweeds on our property, but obviously not nearly enough to attract monarchs. I hope to change that in the coming years.
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