Growing up as a child in Virginia, one of my fondest memories was watching the spring and autumn migrations of the orange and black butterflies we call monarchs.
It’s with great sorrow that I recently learned they are on the brink of extinction, due in large part to the eradication of milkweed, the plant they depend on.
Monarchs [ Danaus plexippus] belong to the subfamily Daninae, the milkweed butterflies. In their larval stage they feed entirely on milkweed, and adult monarchs continue to feed on their nectar, which contains a mild toxin which makes them distasteful to predators. For without this toxic protection the butterflies would become a quick snack for hungry birds.
In recent years, milkweed plants have largely disappeared from the American landscape, and monarch populations have dwindled from nearly a billion to less than 33 million. Monarchs are a keystone species- symbolic of other wildlife that has become endangered by loss of habitat.
It takes more than four generations to complete an annual migration. For instance: adult butterflies leave Mexico in the spring, and after mating the females seek out milkweed plants to lay their eggs on. The first three generations travel north, each laying eggs on the milkweed plant before dying at six weeks old. The eggs hatch into smooth, ringed, black, green and yellow caterpillars that feed on milkweed and then spin bright green chrysalises which pupate into butterflies continuing the migration. The fourth generation forms a chrysalis later in summer, and may live up to nine months, completing the trip back to its wintering ground. In 2014, very few made it back.
We can’t entirely blame it all on Mexico, although that is part of the problem, many scientists believe the main reason for the decline is “up north,” where agricultural practices have wiped out areas where milkweed once flourished. Vast natural landscapes have given way to huge farms where soybean and corn are grown. 95% of the soybeans and corn have been genetically altered to survive mass spraying of herbicides, in particular- Roundup, which kills milkweed upon contact.
So, what can we do? You may think that we are past the tipping point, but I happen to think we still have a chance to save the monarchs. While the leaders of the United States, Canada, and Mexico discuss this over and over and make future plans- we as gardeners can do something today ! Help by planting milkweed seeds in your yard, or along streams and creek beds. If you have been blessed with some land, set aside a portion just for milkweed. Limit the use of chemicals and the monarchs will thrive. I know milkweed seed is hard to find, but you can check online with seed companies. I’m sure once the word gets out to the companies who sell herb and vegetable seeds, you should have no difficulty obtaining seed. Check with Eden Brothers. I think they may carry the milkweed seed.
While we won’t be able to save every species, there is still time to save the monarchs.
Blessed be, sweet ones
~ Meadow Walker