Where Have All the Monarchs Gone?


At our maxandjane.com farm, we grow our own ingredients for our skin care products. Keeping our plants healthy and productive is vital. Bees and butterflies act as pollinators, spreading pollen from the male plants to female plants, which then produces robust blooms. We’re strong proponents of building habitats in our mountain valley for these creatures, including Monarch butterflies which are quickly dwindling across the Western hemisphere.

Monarch butterflies may be the best known of all American butterflies, with their stunning orange, black, and white patterned wings. Monarchs live throughout North America including Canada, the United States and Mexico, and they are famous for an amazing and epic 3,000 mile journey each year. They make this journey each fall to overwinter in the Sierra Madre mountain range, some as far north as southern California but most within a small area of that mountain range located in Mexico. These areas have ideal temperatures and humidity for the butterflies to rest until spring.

During the migration, certain trees along the route will have thousands of butterflies resting on their branches at one time, creating spectacular beauty!

There are three distinct populations of Monarchs in North America. One population lives just west of the Rocky Mountains and these are the butterflies that overwinter in Southern California.

The other two populations live just east of the Rocky Mountains, and in the central American plains. These are the two populations that migrate to the Sierra Madres in Mexico. Monarch butterflies can travel 50 to 100 miles per day when they are healthy and well fed. The migration can take up to two months. Then they rest.

In March, the cycle starts again with the trip northward. The butterflies breed, live, and die along the route, so that the descendants are the ones that complete the migration. Up to four generations can be produced in one summer. The first three of these generations live from two to six weeks each, as they continue northward. The fourth generation is quite different and it can live up to nine months. These are the migrating miracles that will be heading south for the winter.

The migration numbers have always fluctuated, but at one time it was estimated that the migration included one and a half billion butterflies per year. The numbers have been steadily declining in the last few years; in the winter of 2012, the numbers were estimated at only sixty million, then as shockingly low as four million in the winter of 2013.

These estimates are determined by the amount of acreage covered during the migration as the insects themselves can’t be counted, so the size of the colonies is used for estimation of their numbers.

Some experts fear that this spectacular migration may be nearing collapse. There are multiple reasons thought to be responsible.

There was heavy, illegal cutting of trees in Mexico surrounding the butterfly preserve in previous years. The Mexican government has remedied this problem.

The food source for Monarchs is a large reason for their threatened status. Monarchs rely on milkweed plants. Monarch caterpillars feed almost solely on milkweed, and the adult butterflies rely on milkweed nectar. They also lay their eggs on this same plant. Milkweed is now in short supply. Historically, milkweed grew in ditches and hedgerows, on idle land, and in fields between rows of corn and soybeans. The corn prices have been high in the last few years and so farmers have planted corn on tens of millions of acres which were previously idle. The corn prices have been driven by federal subsidies for biofuels, and the farmers have been driven by a need to pay their bills.

Unfortunately, in our opinion, many growers also switched to crops that are genetically engineered to tolerate herbicides. These “Round-Up Ready” crops, because of the increased use of herbicides with them, has almost wiped out milkweed that used to grow between rows of corn and soybeans, and along the roadsides. The butterflies now have to travel further for food and to find places to lay their eggs. This uses up energy and stored fats, so the butterflies are laying less eggs, and sometimes they die before they have the chance to reproduce. If the Monarchs were well fed, they would be stronger and could fly further. The largest problem facing Monarchs is the loss of habitat, including loss of milkweed.

Erratic weather patterns are also taking their toll on Monarch populations. Near record heat in 2012, and the opposite in the spring of 2013, delayed the Monarchs northward migration. This threw off the timing to arrive in preferred breeding areas, and when combined with the tight food sources, weakened their numbers further. These erratic weather patterns may be tied to our carbon footprint.

Now comes the question, “What can we do to help?”

Planting milkweed seeds or plants anywhere that it can easily grow would be very helpful. Milkweed is a perennial plant that can grow in very poor soil and can take lots of heat, but it does need water. It would be happy near a river or on the edge of a field or garden where it would get some water. Milkweed has a beautiful pink flower, made up of many star shaped florets, and the plant will get larger and more beautiful each year.

Also, we can be mindful of buying or using herbicides or pesticides that will harm bees and butterflies. Many organic products are available to do the same jobs, and there are other simple practices that will make our environment healthier in the long term. Please be careful of flea and tick powders for your animals that contain ingredients that are harmful to our pollinators.

We can speak up for wildlife, and help preserve the beauty and wholeness of nature!