There may be snow on the ground, but believe it or not the great annual monarch butterfly migration has only recently ended. Worryingly, it hasn’t been nearly as great in recent years as it should be, but the news from Mexico says there’s hope yet.
The monarch butterfly migration is one of nature’s most incredible tricks. Each autumn, almost every monarch east of the Rockies takes wing and flies thousands of miles to a small region of forest in central Mexico. Last year, 35 million arrived safely. That seems like a lot, but it isn’t. Just 20 years ago, a billion butterflies made the same trip.
We can see the difference even up here in Vermont, where the once common midsummer hallmark of fluttering orange is now a rare sight that elicits a comment every time. The problem is simple: the Mexican forest the butterflies depend upon for winter survival is slowly being logged to death.
No Mexican trees would likely mean few if any eastern U.S. monarchs, and that prospect galvanized conservationists to start monitoring the forest and policing illegal logging. Now this effort is paying off, For the first time in recent decades, scientists have found that no new logging damage in the monarch’s wintering grounds.
The forest cover is stabilizing, and monarchs, which have become quite endangered, suddenly have a good chance of bouncing back from the brink. Somewhat ironically, it also means that the species’ biggest problems are no longer in Mexico but right here at home in the U.S. of A., where herbicides are causing a dramatic decline in milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s only food source.
Now it’s up to us to save the monarchs. Here’s how you can help:
- Eat organic food, especially soy and corn. A leading contributor to milkweed loss is the rising use of glyphosate, which is used on crops like soy and corn that have been genetically modified to resist it. Organic foods are herbicide-free and help preserve the milkweed in farm fields that the butterflies need to survive.
- Don’t use herbicides or pesticides yourself, especially those containing glyphosate and neonicotinoid chemicals like imidacloprid, clothianidin, thiamethoxam, acetamiprid, and dinotefuran, which have been linked to beneficial insect die-offs.
- Create monarch waystations at home, school, and places like parks and roadsides. Monarchs hopscotch north generation by generation—the insects that depart for Mexico in the fall are the ancestors of those that arrived here in the north in the spring. Planting milkweed for caterpillars and nectar sources for adult butterflies creates breeding habitat that helps the species survive this impressive trip. You can order a waystation seed kit here.
- Ask the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the monarch an endangered species. You can sign a petition here. Or send your own letter to Dan Ashe, Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20240, Dan_Ashe@fws.gov.
Monarchs don’t have to disappear from the American landscape. By supporting international conservation efforts and preventing habitat loss here at home, we can undergo a metamorphosis of our own and save them. To learn more visit Monarch Watch.