The butterfly is a symbol of freedom and beauty for many around the world. For the mexican people in Mexico, the monarch butterfly (danaus plexippus) or “mariposa monarca” represents the beloved souls of their ancestors as flutters of them fill the streets every fall around November 2nd marking the Day of the Dead. Indeed, monarch flybys make for a noteworthy sight, but to look at one alone is just as significant.
A masterpiece in a butterfly’s body
Upon looking at the monarch, you will notice an innate perfection in its physiology, almost ethereal-like. The delicate striated patterns on their citrus-colored wings bear likeness to a stained glass masterpiece. If that wasn’t enough pomp and circumstance to ward off the predators, each wing is also encircled with a black and white polka-dotted border possessing a similitude to that of a hem off a zippy flamenco dress to go dancing in. Indeed, the monarch is a creature to ogle at, but it deserves more than the captivation of our revering eyes. Right now, it needs are protective spirit because the monarch population is on the decline and so are the numbers of migratory monarchs that make the 3,000 mile stretch every year from the Northern parts of the U.S. and the Southern regions of Canada to the Transvolcanic Mountains of Mexico.
A hiatus 3,000 miles away
It is estimated that approximately 200 million butterflies make the migratory trip each year, with 4 generations produced for every complete migratory season. In the fall, they move to warmer regions because they cannot fly in temperatures lower than 55*F. Monarchs that live west of the Rocky Mountains sojourn to the California coast whereas the larger monarch population, which is east of the Rockies, funnel straight through Texas and into central Mexico. In Mexico, there are 12 known sites that the monarchs journey to consistently. According to the University of Minnesota, there are 25 predictable overwintering sites in California. The butterflies fly at 12 miles per hour and average 2 months to get from point A to point B on their migratory paths.
Recipe for endangerment
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) officially stated in 1983 that the migratory pattern of the monarch is an “Endangered Phenomenon” and not much has changed since then.
The major contributing factors that have led to the drop in the monarch population are not conclusive, but research suggests that swings in climate change, the excessive deforestation of fir trees, the spread of chemical controls over residential gardens and agricultural farmlands, the rampant influx of urban development and the limited amount of food sources available to the butterflies; especially their host plant, the milkweed (asclepias), all make up for a recipe of degradation.
“Holes” in the forest canopy create deadly microclimates for the butterflies
The sites that monarchs make their homes in tend to be isolated and when there are dramatic climate changes, they suffer a great loss to their population. Sudden and unexpected cold snaps have hit the monarchs hard, such as in Mexcio when 250 million were killed in a freak ice storm in January 2002, accounting for 3 quarters of the monarchs in the two biggest colonies of Chincua and Rosario. Perhaps, a number of butterfly casualties could have been saved from the ice storm if the forest canopy had been more intact. The oyamel fir forests are targets for illegal logging, which has left “holes” in the forest cover, creating colder and wetter microclimates that are less than desirable for the monarchs that huddle together on the tree trucks to keep warm. It is documented that 44 percent of the oyamel forests have been damaged according to a study done by biologist Lincoln Brower with colleagues at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Pesticides= Monarch homicides
Pesticides are also potentially responsible for the reduced numbers of monarchs, just as they are attributed to the decrease in bees too. These toxic eradicators are designed to kill either insect pests or weeds found in areas where pollinators make direct contact with plants and these chemicals do not discriminate whether a butterfly is a pest or a pollinator so they are ill-advised.
Moreover, herbicides target the milkweed plant and have led to a breakdown in this important food source for the monarchs. Monarch larvae will only eat milkweed and a good part of it lives in and around farmlands that are spraying for noxious weeds.
A leading conservation group known as Monarch Watch stated that “90 percent of all milkweed-monarch habitats occur within the agricultural landscape” adding that “farm practices have the potential to strongly influence monarch populations.”
Milkweed likes to makes itself at home on the edges of roadsides, but these areas are all too often sprayed with herbicides and mowed down. Consequently, the plant diversity that normally would be present and encourage beneficial bugs is exhausted and grass grows instead.
Additionally, genetically modified organisms (GMO) that have been hybridized to resist particular herbicides, allow farmers to intensively spray for weeds, but this approach is overzealous. For example, when these crops resist Glyphosate spray, which is often used on GMO corn and soybean crops, everything else that it comes into contact with is killed, including milkweed. These chemical controls leave no room for error and abolish not only the bad, but some of the good too, spanning over hundreds of thousands of acres. Tilling the ground is one method of removing weeds without hurting soil health, beneficial insect life and plant diversity while maintaining the presence of milkweed.
Similarly, corn that is genetically engineered to contain Bt, a pesticide used to kill corn-boring caterpillars,has been shown in independent studies to have harmful effects on monarchs and their larvae. According to the USDA, GMO corn accounts for 40 percent of all corn planted in the U.S. and the pollen contains traces of Bt that monarchs pick up on contact. To add, the nation’s corn is primarily grown in the Midwest where monarchs fly through during their migration.
The baby caterpillars need their milk
To offset the lack of milkweed out in our agricultural areas and roadsides, milkweed seeds can be purchased and planted in home landscapes or in community settings. By planting milkweed, you will be encouraging the butterflies to lay eggs and continue to propagate the species. The monarch caterpillars will hatch and then feast on the leaves of the plant until they are ready to pupate. Interestingly, milkweed is critical to their survival because it is poisonous and the poisons that the caterpillars ingest are isolated in their bodies and later keep the predators from eating them when they are butterflies due to their repelling taste.
As adults, monarch butterflies no longer feast on the leaves of the milkweed, but move on to collecting pollen from plants that are high in nectar. With this in mind, it is encouraged to plant butterfly gardens with a variety of butterfly-loving plants. These gardens can be officially recognized as conservation sites under the Monarch Watch organization whereby you can enroll and receive a sign marked “Monarch Waystation.” Possible station sites include: homes, schools, businesses, parks, zoos, nature centers, roadsides and unused plots.
Urban sprawl has led to monarch withdrawal
As more and more buildings and parking lots are built upon and paved over preexisting wildlife habitats, both animal and insect species will have limited spaces to make homes or graze. All too often, urban development is pushed to fix an economic boom for a city by increasing its tax base than it is concerned with accommodating a population. This conventional land use planning typically disregards ecological impacts and builds anyway. Fortunately, a balance can be established by incorporating greenbelts into the infrastructure. Greenbelts are designated natural areas and cities that use the smart-growth model for development tend to include greenbelts into their plans.
Adopt a butterfly today
With hopes that the monarch butterfly migration will be around for years to come, environmental stewardship is key or it could be the end for the monarchy of the monarchs. Consider raising monarch butterflies to help boost the butterfly population. When monarchs are breed and released they have a great chance at survival. Adoptees have relished the experience of raising monarchs and often become attached, but all know the joy of seeing their butterflies fly away to fulfill their place in this world.