Monarch butterfly

Once common, monarch butterflies are threatened by deforestation and reforestation, rampant use of herbicides, climatic changes — most likely due to global warming, droughts, temperature extremes and even uncontrolled eco-tourism disturbing them.

Almost everyone has heard that the once common monarch butterfly is in danger of vanishing from the Americas.

But why?

The Eastern Monarch Butterfly is in trouble. Scientists and volunteers counted about 29,000 butterflies in its annual survey last year at their wintering grounds in Mexico. The winter before, they counted an all-time low of 27,000 monarchs.

More than troubled, they are threatened by deforestation and reforestation, rampant use of herbicides, climatic changes — most likely due to global warming, droughts, temperature extremes and even uncontrolled eco-tourism disturbing them.

Another major problem facing these striking butterflies is a scarcity of milkweed along their migration routes and breeding areas. University of Kansas insect ecologist Orley R. Taylor has been observing the fragile populations of monarch butterflies for decades. Still, he says, he has never been more concerned about their future.

Often, we fault others for environmental threats like those facing the orange, black and white insects, when part of the problem lies within our borders and even in our own yards. We learn in grammar school that animals need food, water, shelter, and space to live. In the United States, Canada and Mexico, the monarch population is down over 90 percent due to habitat destruction and, as mentioned, the shortage of milkweed, the food monarch caterpillars rely upon exclusively. Historically, the U.S. Corn Belt has produced half of the monarchs that migrate to Mexico. Before Roundup, weed control was accomplished by tilling fields, chopping up the weeds and turning over the soil, but not destroying milkweed and other native plants.

For migrant monarchs, the need for winter roosts is as paramount as during the summer when three to five generations are born during the breeding season. Only the last generation migrates all the way to unique forest habitat in central Mexico without having any previous experience with locating the roosts. The butterflies depend for five months on this forest microclimate to survive while overwintering together in a tiny region where rampant illegal logging has destroyed much of the forests.

It was not until 1975 that the scientific community finally tracked down these wintering sites. Until then, the monarch's winter hideouts had been a secret known only to local villagers and landowners.

The return trip north requires several generations to be born along the trip north, each needing milkweed to finally arrive at their breeding grounds, some in our yards and neighborhoods, for instance.

Another problem monarchs face is reforestation. When I was a lad of about 7 or 8 years, our family picnicked at a rest area along Route 7 in New Ashford, behind which was a hillside meadow, where I would chase butterflies and grasshoppers about for hours at a time. Today, it is deep woodland of mature trees — and you do not see monarchs in deep forests. They not only prefer open meadows with pollen-rich flowers and plentiful milkweeds for their young, but they will also die without it.

WESTERN MONARCHS

We have been discussing the eastern monarch, but there is also the western monarch that, to my knowledge, is the far western version of what we know hereabouts. The number of western monarchs, that summer in the Pacific Northwest and winter along the southern California coast, has also dropped even worse, putting it closer to extinction.

This past winter, during the annual count by the Xerces Society, fewer than 2,000 butterflies were recorded when tens of thousands were counted in recent years and the millions that clustered in trees back in the 1980s.

It is sad that the butterfly counters at places like Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove and Natural Bridges State Beach only found a few hundred monarchs, whereas they expected thousands.

Blame habitat along their migratory route because housing continues to expand into their territory and use of poisons increases. It sounds like the East Coast!

MONARCH GARDENS

If you are interested in a Monarch butterfly garden, here is a book for you, "100 Plants to Feed the Monarch." In this in-depth portrait of the monarch butterfly — covering its life cycle, its remarkable relationship with milkweed, its extraordinary migration, and the threats it now faces due to habitat loss and climate change — detailed instructions on how to design and create monarch-friendly landscapes are enriched by guidance on observing and understanding butterfly behavior and habits.

Following the model of its previous best-selling book, "100 Plants to Feed the Bees" the Xerces Society provides at-a-glance profiles of the plant species that provide monarchs with nourishment. The plants, which are all commercially available, range from dozens of species of milkweed to numerous flowering plants, shrubs, and trees that provide nectar for the adult butterfly, including those that bloom in late season and sustain monarchs in their great migration.

For additional information and to order, go to: https://gifts.xerces.org/products/100-plants-to-feed-the-monarch

LIGHTNING BUG INFO

Someone wrote Naturewatch a few weeks ago asking about lightning bugs and I hit delete by mistake and lost it. This website may have the information:

https://xerces.org/blog/shedding-light-on-firefly-natural-history-and-distributions-through-community-science