Save the Monarch

Monarch Education and Conservation

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    This page is dedicated to the education and conservation of Monarch butterflies. Here you will find information on the present status of the Monarch population, learn the reasons for the dwindling number of Monarchs, and find out what you can do to help increase their numbers. You'll learn about the life cycle of a monarch and come to understand why milkweed is so important in Monarch conservation.
    Gardening-oriented businesses and organizations can also, on this page, order our beautiful, informative 'Save the Monarch' brochures for distribution to customers or members, or maybe to be used as a handout at special events your business or organization may be hosting or attending. The brochures, too, are geared toward Monarch education and conservation.

Data for 1994-2003 collected by personnel of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) of the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas in Mexico. Data for 2003-2013 collected by World Wildlife Fund Mexico in coordination with the Dicectorate of the MBBR.

Above, a Monarch butterfly nectars on Butterfly Bush.

Monarch Numbers Plummet—Again    by Rose Franklin, February 28, 2014

Since the winter of 1993-1994, scientists have been traveling to Michoacan, Mexico, every winter to monitor the size of the area that is occupied by over-wintering Monarch butterflies. This information is used to provide data on the status of the butterfly population, and might even be an indicator of the status of pollinator insects in general.

    The size of the area is measured in hectares. One hectare equals approximately 2.47 acres. Looking at the graph, you will see that during the winter of 1996-1997, the year the population was at its highest, Monarchs covered 20.97 hectares of mountainside. That’s almost 52 acres.

   
This winter, 2013-2014, there was only .67 hectare of Mexican forest blanketed by the orange and black wings of Monarchs. That’s approximately 1.65 acres, an area smaller than the average-sized Walmart!--and that's not very big compared to 52 acres.  

During the past two years, the Monarch population has plummeted to alarmingly low numbers. There is reason for concern.

    What has caused the Monarch population to decline? The consensus among scientists is that there may many factors at play. Among them are (1) the destruction of natural habitat, (2) the increased use of insecticides, (3) the increased use of herbicides, and (4) climate change.

    Approximately 6,000 acres per day, 2.2 million acres per year, of farmland and natural habitat is being converted to housing developments, resorts, shopping centers, gulf courses, and highways. Natural prairies and grasslands are being plowed under to grow more corn and soybeans, two agricultural crops that have skyrocketed in price over the last decade or so.

    Almost all of the corn and soybeans being planted today are herbicide-resistant varieties. Farmers can plant the seed without having to till the soil, and then spray the fields with herbicides to control the weeds. The herbicides kill the weeds (including milkweed, which Monarchs must have to lay their eggs on) but do not harm the corn and soybean plants. No one knows how many milkweed plants have been killed by the application of herbicides, but likely, millions have been poisoned in the past 10 years or so. Entomologists who focus their study on the Monarch feel certain the disappearance of milkweed from U.S. agricultural grounds, where it once grew in abundance, is the number one reason for the dwindling number of Monarchs.

    The widespread use of insecticides to control mosquito and gypsy moth populations might likely be contributing to the disappearance of butterflies too.  Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is often aerial-sprayed over forests, wetlands, and near housing developments to kill the insect pests that must be kept under control. But Bt is a notorious caterpillar killer! And while butterflies were not the intended target of the spraying, I am pretty sure that millions of butterfly larvae have been wiped out by Bt.

    Climate change is another factor that scientists often note as having an impact on the butterfly population. The average temperature is increasing, droughts are becoming more common, and storms are growing stronger. Along with these weather events causing stress for humans, they are hard on the butterfly population too.

    Are insecticides killing the butterflies? Are herbicides poisoning the milkweeds that Monarchs must have in order for reproduction to occur? Are warmer summers, heavy rains, violent wind storms, and/or droughts taking their toll? No one knows for sure which of these factors has had the most devastating consequences for the Monarch population, but one or more of these is assuredly causing the Monarch populace to plummet.

    The honey bee population appears to be in serious trouble too. I wonder if it’s not the same variables causing both the Monarch and honey bee populations to sharply drop in number. And if, by chance, that is the case, we’d better wake up. Without pollinators, the human race could not exist. We need these insects to pollinate our food crops.

February, 2018 Update:  The Monarch population has increased in number since it's low in 2014, but not by much. 
During the winter of 2014-2015, the population rebounded to cover 2.79 acres (l.13 hectares) in the Monarch preserves, which lay in the mountains west of Mexico City.
During the winter of 2015-2016, the Monarch population was believed to be the largest in five years but then, in early March, when the butterflies were in the process of leaving their over-wintering grounds in Mexico, an unusual and very severe winter storm brought rain, snow, ice, wind, and cold temperatures to the Sierra Madre Mountains where the Monarchs reside from late November thru mid March. That storm blew over hundreds of tall trees and killed an estimated 6.2 million Monarchs, dramatically reducing the population.

What we can do to help increase the Monarch population:

Plant milkweed for them to lay eggs on. One of the milkweeds they highly favor for egg-laying  is Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), a South American native that must be treated as an annual in most of the U.S. In September and October, Tropical Milkweed provides nectar for the Monarchs that are migrating to Mexico.

Plant nectar plants for the adult Monarchs to feed on. Butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii), Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Meadow Blazing Star (Liatris ligulistylis), Milkweed (Asclepias), and Zinnia are among their favorite nectar sources.

Refrain from using insecticides and herbicides on your property.  Remember, butterflies are insects that might be harmed by the insecticides you use, and herbicides might kill plants that are vital to butterfly  survival and reproduction.

Work to protect natural Monarch habitats (areas containing milkweed and wildflowers that can be utilized for nectaring) from being disturbed or forever destroyed.

Donate to Monarch Watch or another organization dedicated to the conservation, education, and research of Monarch butterflies.

 

The Life Cycle of a Monarch Butterfly

Eggs are laid on milkweed plants by female Monarchs. They are generally deposited singly on the undersides of leaves. A Monarch caterpillar hatches from the egg 5 to 7 days after it is laid. It is so tiny it can barely be seen, but just 10 to 14 days after hatching, it is fully grown, about 2 3/8” long. It has grown (and become distasteful to birds) by feeding on a strict diet of milkweed.
    The caterpillar usually leaves the milkweed plant to pupate. Pupation requires only the shedding of its skin (butterfly caterpillars do not spin a cocoon as most moths do). Under the shed skin, a semi-hard shell, the chrysalis, forms to encase the caterpillar. Inside the chrysalis, a miraculous transformation occurs: the Monarch caterpillar becomes a majestic butterfly. And this takes place in just 8 to 12 days!
    When the transformation is complete, the chrysalis cracks open and out comes a beautiful Monarch butterfly.

The Monarch Migration

    Some Monarchs are permanent residents to Florida and California. Most, those that are summer residents east of the Rocky Mountains, migrate to central Mexico for the winter. There, high in the oyamel fir forests west of Mexico City, Monarchs are protected from freezing temperatures from November through late February. In late February, the butterflies mate and then begin the journey north. Milkweed plants are now in growth mode in Texas, so this is where they will enter the U.S. to begin the northward pilgrimage.
   The Monarchs that lay eggs in Texas will go no farther; their role in the survival of the species has been completed. But while the lives of these Monarchs will end, their offspring will continue the journey north. Eventually, they will be seen even in parts of Canada, where milkweed still grows to host their caterpillars.
    From spring through fall, three to five generations of Monarchs will be produced. The last generation of the season, the Monarchs that emerge from chrysalises from late August through late September, will not mate, but instead, they will build fuel reserves by nectaring on flowers and then migrate to Mexico for the winter.

'Save the Monarch' brochures

I, Rose Franklin, created the 'Save the Monarch' brochure to educate the public on the obstacles facing the Monarch and urge readers to assist the Monarch in its struggle to multiply.

The brochures were printed by a commercial printer on high-quality, heavy weight, semi-gloss paper and thus, are attractive and professional in appearance. They were printed on 8 1/2" X 11" stock, are pre-folded, and ready to hand out (except for adding your contact info to the back panel).

There is space on the back panel of the brochure for your company name, address, web site address, phone number, etc.

The inside and outside of the brochure are shown below.

100 for $35.00      35cents each 200 for $60.00       30 cents each 300 for $67.50       25 cents each

Brochure Outside:

Brochure Inside:

Plausible Negative Consequences of Protecting the Monarch under the Endangered Species Act

                                                                                                                                                                                                          by Rose Franklin        January10, 2015

 

On August 26, 2014, a petition was filed with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, through the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, to protect the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act. The petitioners (The Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, The Xerces Society, and Dr. Lincoln Brower) state that the North American monarch population has declined by more than 90% in the past two decades and may be threatened with eventual extinction.

I, like most butterfly enthusiasts, am highly concerned by the drastically reduced monarch numbers. But I wonder if adding the monarch to the Endangered Species List will help or hinder the monarch population. I wonder, too, if listing the monarch as an endangered species might, to an even greater extent, deprive humans of its majestic beauty and further increase the distance between mankind and nature.

Entomologists agree that the most significant reason for the plummeting drop in the monarch population is that milkweed is being destroyed at an alarming rate on agricultural grounds, where it once grew wild in abundance. Milkweed is vital to the monarch, for it is the host plant for monarch larvae. Without milkweed to feed the caterpillars, the butterfly cannot complete its lifecycle and thus, the monarch population cannot survive.

Since 1996, when genetically-modified, Roundup-Ready crops were introduced, milkweed has been rapidly disappearing from farmland. Farmers are now able to plant seed without having to first till the soil, and then spray their fields with Roundup to control the weeds. The herbicide kills the weeds (including milkweed) but does not harm the crops. While only Roundup-Ready soybeans were available in 1996, today the list of genetically-modified crops includes soy, corn, canola, alfalfa, cotton, sorghum, wheat, and sugarbeets. Well over 90% of the corn and soy being planted in the U.S. today are Roundup-Ready varieties, and there certainly appears to be a direct correlation between the use of Roundup-Ready crops and the destruction of milkweed in rural North America. And the scientific community agrees that the loss of milkweed has resulted in the alarmingly low monarch numbers.

Out of concern that an iconic species might become extinct, the Endangered Species Act was passed by Congress in 1973. The most serious threats to endangered animal species have traditionally been shooting, poisoning, and trapping. To address these concerns, Section 9 of the Endangered Species Act states that it would be unlawful for any person “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect” the species in danger of extinction. Known as the “take clause,” Section 9 makes it illegal for people to take the threatened species from the wild. The government extended the “take clause” to include the “taking of habitat which harbors, or could harbor, the endangered species.”

If the monarch is added to the Endangered Species List, it will then be illegal for anyone to take a monarch from the wild, and if the Fish and Wildlife Service determines at some point that milkweed is critical to the monarch’s survival, it may be illegal to harm, wound, or kill a milkweed plant.

The petitioners say they recognize the valuable roles that citizen scientist monitoring and tagging, and classroom and in-home rearing of monarchs play in monarch conservation and hence request that upon Endangered Species Act listing, the Fish and Wildlife Service facilitate or waive permitting requirements for teachers and citizen scientists, so long as their rearing endeavors are limited to raising 10 or less monarchs per year.

How likely is it that the Fish and Wildlife Service would allow teachers and citizen scientists to rear monarchs in the home or in the school once the monarch is added to the list? Not very likely at all! Rarely, very rarely, has the Fish and Wildlife Service granted exceptions to the “take clause” and permitted the general public to take the listed animal from the wild and raise it in the home or in the school. If the monarch is indeed listed as a threatened species, it will likely be illegal for any U.S. citizen (except for university professors who are studying the insect) to harass, harm, pursue, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect monarchs. It will almost certainly be illegal to collect any number of monarch eggs, caterpillars, pupae, or adults from the wild.  

Some teachers and citizen scientists, rather than collecting monarch eggs and/or caterpillars from the wild, purchase them from commercial butterfly breeders, the industry that often provides adult monarchs for release at weddings, anniversaries, open houses, memorial services, and fund-raising events. The petitioners, however, ask that all commercial breeding of monarchs be prohibited. Why? Because they somehow concluded that commercial breeders were raising and releasing millions upon millions of monarchs per year, potentially interfering with scientific studies on the distribution and movement of wild monarchs which, the petitioners claim, are increasingly important in light of habitat loss and climate change. In reality, commercial butterfly breeders produce significantly less than 10% of the number of monarchs that the petitioners guessed they do, even if the petitioners' "millions and millions" meant only two million. Nonetheless, if the monarch is added to the Endangered Species List, and if the petitioners request is granted by the Fish and Wildlife Service,  there will be no commercial breeders for teachers and citizen scientists to obtain their ten or less monarch eggs and/or caterpillars from (should they be unable to find them in the wild). And as I stated previously, is is highly doubtful that the Fish and Wildlife Service would make an exception to the "take clause" and allow monarchs to be reared in the home or in the school anyway.

Personally, I would be saddened to think that citizen scientists and school teachers would be forbidden to raise monarchs, thus denying children the rewarding experience of observing the miraculous monarch metamorphosis first-hand. Watching a monarch caterpillar chewing on milkweed is like watching a child chew on an ear of buttered sweet corn. Seeing a caterpillar pupate is nothing less than amazing, and witnessing the emergence of a majestic monarch butterfly from its chrysalis is simply mystical.  

I would also be saddened to think that brides would be deprived of large, beautiful, brightly colored monarchs on the most important day of their lives, and that those mourning the loss of a loved one might have to compromise for small, fast-flying, zig-zagging painted ladies instead of graceful, ballerina-like monarchs. Everyone knows and loves the monarch, and everyone wishes to have monarchs released at their special event. And monarch releases are an environmentally-friendly alternative to throwing rice and/or releasing balloons at weddings and other special events.  

For many people, a butterfly release is their first close-up encounter with a live butterfly. In releasing monarchs, people, often for the first time, experience the amazing, relaxing, mesmerizing feeling that butterflies bring to humans. Many people leave the butterfly release with a goal of attracting monarchs to their gardens. Some newlyweds send a packet of milkweed seeds home with every guest. If monarch releases are banned by the Fish and Wildlife Service, all the people who have experienced the joy of a monarch butterfly release will know that others are being deprived of something quite spectacular, an experience that is beautiful and peaceful, and brings people a little closer to nature.

With so many U.S. citizens now aware of the fact that monarchs are dwindling in number because milkweed is rapidly disappearing from the agricultural landscape, many are eager to aid the monarch in its quest to multiply. Americans have, in the last few years, begun to plant milkweed seeds and plants by the tens of thousands. I know this to be true because I operate a perennial nursery and have watched milkweed sales skyrocket in recent years. And because the monarch has an enormous fan club, I have no doubt that milkweed sales will continue to rise in coming years, in my nursery, and in hundreds more across the nation.. Milkweed might be vanishing from rural farmland, but it is popping up in home gardens, in city parks and state parks and national parks, along nature trails, and in botanical gardens. Within a few years, I suspect we will see that milkweed hasn't disappeared, but instead, was simply redistributed. And with a dramatic increase in the number of milkweed plants will come an increase in the number of monarchs, this assuming, of course, that droughts, floods, and violent storms don’t take their toll on the population.

The monarch is no more at risk of extinction than any other butterfly. Those of us who garden for butterflies have watched the population of most butterfly species dwindle over the past few decades. And last year, the year that the monarch population was at a record low, so too were some other butterfly species at record lows.  

It is widely accepted that  (1) the loss of habitat, and (2) the overuse of insecticides and herbicides are the two factors that have contributed most to the diminishing butterfly population. Here in the northeast, millions of woodland butterfly larvae have likely been killed by aerial spraying that was intended to control the gypsy moth population. Here and elsewhere, insecticides aimed at controlling mosquitoes and other pestilent insects have probably wiped out thousands, and in all likelihood, millions, more butterflies. Butterflies were not the intended targets of the insecticidal spraying, but they have certainly suffered the consequences.  

I think the monarch is fortunate in having an audience that is alert to its needs and is willing to aid it in its time of need. Other butterfly species are not so blessed. My opinion is that the monarch should not be listed as a Threatened Species. Listing it will not likely increase its numbers and may actually decrease their numbers. Planting more milkweed will most assuredly increase the population. Listing the monarch will likely make it illegal to raise monarchs in the home and in the classroom, illegal to release monarchs at weddings and other special events, and illegal to take  monarch eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises, or adults from the wild for any purpose (including education and display). Likely, monarchs will have to be removed from butterfly houses and other such public displays too.

Instead of supporting the petition to list the monarch as an Endangered Species, let’s all just plant more milkweed. I feel assured that will more quickly increase the monarch numbers.

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