Summer temperatures bring a lot of great things to Maine and even with rain in the forecast, the warmth continues. I recently took a sunset walk and noticed some milkweed growing along the side of the road. I was happy to see this weed as it’s the primary source for one of the most recognizable butterflies in the United State, the monarch. I have a special place in my heart for the monarchs and they are in trouble. The reason I love them so much can be traced back to the first grade. At that time, I met my elementary school’s 3rd grade teacher at Lyseth Elementary in Portland, Maine. Mrs. Hawkes was one of those special teachers who can teach you a lesson that influences you for a lifetime.
Behind the building where I went to school there were acres of milkweed. During the past few decades that field has been cleared to build houses. This is one small example of the problem for the monarch butterfly. 45 years ago, Mrs. Hawkes had taken her class to that field and they were raising monarchs in jars with the milk week. I remember seeing a multi-color caterpillar in the jar and her explanation of what would happen over the next few weeks. Each afternoon after school I would go back to her class to witness the changes. Seeing a green chrysalis attached to a stick and then a few days later was almost incomprehensible for a 6 year old. When the butterflies were released I was hooked and my love of those insects continues to this day.
Monarchs are amazing. In the fall of each year the final generation of butterflies from the year migrates 2500 to 3000 miles, to a small area of Mexico, parts of southern California and Florida to spend the winter. In spring, the same generation then migrates back from the southern region of the United States and Mexico and begins breeding before they die. Subsequent generations will move north, breed and then move north again. The first several generations won’t live more than a few weeks, but the last generation of the year is special. It’s this final generation of the season who will turn around and head south for the whole process to begin anew.
There are all sorts of pressures on the monarch. Where they winter in Mexico, logging is an issue. Loggers in the region cut the trees the butterflies use to protect them in winter; this practice destroys their home and puts pressure on them to find other places to make it through the colder months. Alternative types of trees don’t afford the same conditions to the butterfly. The Mexican government has passed laws to help the monarchs, but illegal activity continues.
Then there are their habitats once they migrate back to the United States. Parts of Texas have seen drought conditions for a few years and this has dried up some of the food sources for the insects. Thousands of monarchs will die on the annual trek northward, some due to lack of adequate food.
Then there is what I consider one of the biggest issues for the monarchs and the problem isn’t just a butterfly’s. In the Midwest, acres and acres of genetically modified corn allow farmers to spray the chemical glyphosate better known to most of us as Roundup. The corn plants genetically modified code allows the chemical to be sprayed directly on the plant without killing them. This allows farmers to kill their weeds, including milkweed, without harming the corn. (the same thing exists for soybeans) Before the invention of this strain of corn, milkweed and other wild flowers would continue to grow between the rows and in the fields of the farmers. Monarchs would have adequate food during their long journey north each spring and early summer.
Other pollinators like bees and hummingbirds also would have fed on the wildflowers growing on these farms. Monarchs also use the plants to lay some 400 eggs and subsequently the caterpillars will feed on the plants before becoming a chrysalis.
The evidence of this problem is overwhelming. The numbers of monarchs wintering in Mexico declined alarmingly the past few years. Last year winter saw the fewest numbers of wintering monarchs on record.
What you can do.
I am hoping some of you reading this blog will realize the importance of monarch butterflies. Sure it’s just one butterfly among hundreds of others. But don’t we have a responsibility not to harm things when we can prevent it? What humans can do to help these amazing little creatures is provide them food. Milkweed is easy to grow and thrives on benign neglect. I’m not asking to turn your entire yard into a wildflower meadow, although that would be kind of cool. Here are 8 suggestions of ways you can help monarchs.
1. Plant milkweed in your own yard or allow it to grow if you already have it. There are even milkweed varieties that flower orange and white and are quiet attractive. Click here for milkweed seeds.
2. Create a program at your local school to grow a butterfly garden. Kids are powerful advocates for butterflies, let’s get them involved.
3. If you are a farmer or you know farmers ask them to leave one row or part of a row for milkweed.
4. Speak with your town highway department. See if they will leave the back of a field un-mowed or let wildflowers grow along the side of some of the roads in your community.
5. Send a letter to your congressional representative about the issue. President Johnson’s wife “Lady Bird” realized the importance of native wildflowers and helped bring awareness to the issue many decades ago.
6. Report your sightings of monarchs. Click here to learn how to report.
7. Raise your own monarch butterflies. Click here to learn how to raise them on your own.
8. Use social media to get the word out. Interact with others on twitter by using the hashtag #helpthemonarchs Follow me on twitter @growingwisdom
So many times in human history we don’t do anything to help the flora of the planet until it’s too late. Monarch butterflies are under tremendous pressure to survive and this is one of those problems that aren’t so big you can’t make a difference. I’m not asking we stop the progress of society, let’s just use our knowledge to help one of the great wonders of nature along the way. #helpthemonarchs