by Sarah Parsons
In November of 2012, 60 million Monarch butterflies were estimated to have migrated from southern Canada to northern Mexico. In November of 2013, only 3 million Monarch butterflies were thought to have made the journey1. The sharp decline in Monarch butterflies over the past few years has unsettled the souls of scientists, naturalists, and ecologists everywhere. What is contributing to the decline of these fragile, beautiful creatures? Researchers across the U.S. have been conducting studies to pinpoint an answer. The results from their studies are slowly being revealed.
According to a New York Times article published last week the reason for Monarch decline is directly related to both our farming and our landscape practices in the U.S1. Chemicals used on crops to kill weeds, are killing native vegetation on which Monarchs thrive. Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) is the native plant, on which most Monarchs depend for food and reproduction. Additionally, the lack of native plants incorporated into our rural, urban, and suburban landscapes, is creating “food deserts” for Monarch butterflies. However, this “food desert” reality is not only devastating Monarch populations, but it is also devastating populations of other pollinators, including native bees and honeybees. Honeybee populations have been on the decline over the last several years as a result of the Varroa mite and a virus that causes a phenomenon in honeybee colonies, known as Colony Collapse Disorder2. Both diseases are exacerbated when honeybees cannot find native forage on which to feed2. The lack of native forage lowers immune system effectiveness in bees and thus increases their susceptibility to diseases. Honeybees are vital to our food system and are responsible for the pollination of many of our nation’s crops. Collectively bee pollinated crops are thought to bring in approximately $15 billion in revenue to the U.S. each year3. Monarchs, butterflies, honeybees, and native bees are all pollinators that play an important role in the food we eat.
The good news: We can stop the decline of both Monarchs and honeybees. We can encourage policies that support preserving native flora landscapes on our farmlands, in our cities, and along our streets. We can also plant more native flowers in our yards and home gardens.
The bad news: Does anyone really care? Are there enough people, who care, to make a positive difference?
I have shared my distress about the fate of the Monarch butterfly with others. Some people have nodded their heads in sorrowful acknowledgement, while others have given me blank stares that say, “Why are you upset about a damn butterfly?” I get it. I can be weird sometimes, and a little over zealous about the environmental problems of our day. However, I do not think I am wrong to feel sadness about this phenomenon that is occurring. Our butterfly friends are ecological indicators, whose health is directly related to the health of our environments – and, in this instance, the health of our agricultural environments. Without butterflies, bees, and other pollinators, we do not eat. However, my sadness does not come from this reality alone. My sadness also comes from a realization of what will be lost if the Monarchs cease to be.
Monarch butterflies are the type of creatures you would find in a J.K Rowling book. They are mythical, mysterious, and almost believably magical. Every year the great grandchildren of Monarch butterflies, who fly north to Canada in the spring, fly south to Mexico and California in the fall4. How these butterflies know where to fly and when, is still something of a mystery. Every third generation of Monarch butterfly flies approximately 3,000 miles across the U.S. When the Monarchs fly south in the fall they end their trips in Southern California or in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt Pine-Oak Forests of Michoacán. In these destination locations, Monarchs congregate by the millions on trees throughout the forests to mate. In her book, “Flight Pattern,” Barbara Kingsolver uses the following words to describe the spectacle that is the congregation of Monarchs5:
“It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights,
an ethereal wind.”
Should Monarchs cease to be, the magic that is their existence will also cease to be. I can see no greater loss of something so wonder-filled and beautiful.
I have hope that people will care that these butterflies are dying. Hope is all I have as a naturalist. However, I also have hope, because I know that by sharing the story of the Monarchs with others, they will be inspired too. A few days ago, I shared the story of the Monarch butterfly with the young students I teach. I expected most of them to give me the “Why are you upset about a damn butterfly?” stare. However, much to my surprise every single student looked at me with a face of sincere sadness. They shared with me in my grief, even if just for a moment. Their faces gave me hope, and it is for them I write. I do not want a world without Monarch butterflies. A world without Monarchs is almost as tragic as a world without Santa Claus. Monarchs help us to believe in something unexplainable. They help us believe in something greater than ourselves, and they help us to believe in a world that is beautiful. We need butterflies and bees for our food system, yes, but we also need them to instill in us the kind of wonder that keeps us young and life-full.
So I ask you to please join with me in my sadness, even if just for a moment. I also ask that you feel inspired. There are many ways you can help improve the fate of the Monarchs and other pollinators. Planting a butterfly garden that includes milkweed (Asclepias spp.) is a good place to start. For more information on butterfly and pollinator gardens, please visit this site. Please see this site for more information about how you can help protect Monarchs. Be inspired and please help in any way that you are able.
I thank you for being with me in my grief. I hope for you wonder and light, and one day may you see the inside of joy.
1 Robbins, Jim. “The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear.” New York Times. November 22, 2013.
2 USDA, EPA. “USDA and EPA Release New Report on Honey Bee Health.” May 2,2013. http://content.govdelivery.com/bulletins/gd/USDAOC-795a36
3 Ostrow, Nicole. “Honeybee Health Damaged by Common Fungicides, Study Finds.” Bloomberg. July 24, 2013.
4 The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. http://www.xerces.org/monarchs/
5 Kingsolver, Barbara. Flight Pattern. HarperCollins Publisher. New York, NY. 2012.