Monarch butterflies, those gloriously beautiful orange and yellow insects, complete one of the most amazing migratory treks of any species. Beginning in spring and ending in the fall, these bugs log nearly 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada. Even more interesting is the fact this migration spans several generations. Only the original Monarch’s “great-grandchildren” will return to Mexico over the course of several months. Scientists still do not understand how the Monarch offspring are able to find their way to a very specific area of forests in Mexico for overwintering, sometimes even the same exact trees, as their ancestors before them.
Even with that secret ingenuity, the Monarch butterfly is in trouble. According to scientists, their population numbers have declined more than 80% in the past two decades. In the mid 1990s, monarch numbers reached over one billion. Last spring, the monarch census found only 56 million. Now, I’m sure you are saying to yourself that 56 million is still a lot of butterflies, but when the numbers began at over one billion, you should find cause for concern; especially with the important role that monarchs play. These insects are considered pollinators. Without pollinators, like butterflies and bees, we would have virtually no food or native plants. The biggest issue plaguing the Monarch is loss of habitat, which is occurring at two different stages of its lifetime. As larvae, the Monarch only eats a very specific plant called milkweed. Milkweed is native to the plains area of the U.S., which is the main stretch of butterfly highway for their journey between Mexico and Canada. Agricultural practices such as monoculture and herbicides have contributed to a near 60% loss of milkweed habitat. Without milkweed, the baby Monarchs will not survive. If suitable milkweed can be found and the larvae develop into full Monarchs, the return to Mexico may be bittersweet as illegal logging and clearing of these very specific forests have depleted its area to a tenth of what it once was.
Yet, helping the migratory Monarch on a small scale is a simple task, one that you can complete in an afternoon. As spring gardening begins, check your local nursery for native milkweed (asclepias) and other nectar flowers such as purple cone. Having a variety will help prolong the availability of nutrients as most bloom at different times of the year. Incorporating both milkweed and nectar flowers into your garden will help the Monarch during several different stages of its life, and will create a living display of nature’s most recognizable and amazing insect in your own backyard!