For many, the monarch butterfly symbolizes healing, rejuvenation, and growth. However, their populations have been doing anything, but growing, for the last 40 years.
Researchers estimate that in the past 40 years, monarch numbers have dropped by more than 99%. This alarming decline is what recently landed them a spot on the IUCN endangered species list. Read on to learn how you can help these animals regain their throne.
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To Live a Life of Royalty
To understand the plight of the monarch butterfly, we have to first look at its life history. Monarch butterflies start off as eggs laid on milkweed- a plant from the genus Asclepias, named for its sticky white sap. In fact, the sap evolved as a defense mechanism against hungry monarch caterpillars. Once the eggs hatch, the caterpillars spend 1-2 weeks chowin’ down before they pupate. They remain in the chrysalis for another 1-2 weeks until they emerge as butterflies. In the spring, the adult butterflies live anywhere from 2-6 weeks. During this time, the butterflies mate, lay eggs, and migrate north.
During migration, monarchs can cover up to 100 miles a day, totaling a 4000-mile journey, which can take up to 4 generations. They usually reach their breeding grounds in the northern US and Canada during July and August. Then, during the autumn months, a single super generation flies back to their wintering grounds in Mexico or California. Scientists are still unsure how the butterflies know where to go or how one generation is capable of traveling up to 4000 miles!
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Let Them Eat Cake
There are many problems facing the reign of the monarchs. For one, they need suitable habitat all along their migration route. This includes an abundance of milkweed for them to lay eggs on and drink nectar from. However, milkweed is toxic to cattle, so it often gets sprayed with herbicides when it’s in ranchland. To compound the problem, the rise of GMO crops means that herbicides can be sprayed liberally without damaging the crops. As a result, no weeds- including milkweed- are able to grow, creating a monoculture. This leaves little to no food or habitat that the butterflies can use. Essentially, these practices have turned large swaths of the US into ecological deserts.
Furthermore, cities and suburbs are expanding, destroying more habitats vital for the monarchs. Cars are another problem. Collisions kill hundreds of thousands of butterflies each year across all stages of the monarch's life cycle.
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Why Monarchs Matter
First, monarchs are vital for pollination. Throughout their migration, they stop at millions of blooms, benefiting each one. They can carry pollen long distances. This distance ensures that a plant isn’t pollinated by a genetically similar plant. Thus, butterflies can make populations of plants healthier!
Not only are butterflies vital for the health of our planet, but they are also culturally significant. The butterflies play a number of different roles in the lore of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. For example, the butterflies have been painted on Hopi Kachina dolls in order to bring health and abundance, and they make appearances in creation stories. Monarchs also appear in Day of the Dead festivities and are thought of as the souls of the dead coming back to visit the world. In Christianity, butterflies are often used as a symbol of rebirth during easter festivities. People around the world find hope and comfort in these creatures.
Finally, these butterflies are simply undeniably beautiful. They brighten a landscape, and their wintering grounds in Mexico are a sight to behold. Personally, it’s on my bucket list to go to the forests where they roost during winter in groups numbering in the thousands.
To Save a Kingdom | Help a Monarch
First and foremost, plant milkweed! This is simple and easy. Even if you don’t have garden space for the plant yourself, see if you can organize a community garden. Or, throw some seeds in a ditch and let nature do the rest. Planting suitable habitat in urban environments expands the areas that monarchs can rely on during their migration. It provides them with a safe place to find food and lay eggs. If more places had milkweed, it would be a game-changer for the butterflies. In addition, you can support butterfly-friendly farms. These foods are grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, or GMOs.
Another way to help is to get involved with community science projects! This is a fun and engaging way to support monarchs. Without complete, reliable, and detailed data about monarch migration, habits, and range, the butterflies are doomed. Scientists need community members to document the butterflies they see and contribute to data. This allows them to know more about range, habitat, and migration patterns. An easy way to contribute is to download the app iNaturalist and join a project!
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