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Friday, March 22, 2013

Majestic Monarch Butterflies Under Threat

Monarchs in the sky (SK Films)

Monarchs in the sky. (SK Films)

A new study shows that the number of monarch butterflies spending the winter in a group of Mexican mountaintops dropped an astounding 59 percent this year.

Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, said he expected the overwinter population count in Mexico to be the lowest yet recorded.

Scientists attribute the drop to the destruction of breeding habitat in the U.S., due to commercial farming practices involving herbicides and genetically engineered crops.

Each year, the monarchs make a 2,000 mile migration from as far north as Canada to a few mountaintops in central Mexico.

Monarch butterflies (SK Films)

Monarch butterflies are pictured in an image from the film “Flight of the Butterflies” (click to enlarge). (SK Films)

The trip takes several generations. Normally, a monarch butterfly lives just two months. But every few generations, a super-generation is born that lives seven months, enabling the monarch to make the trip all the way from Canada to Mexico, where it spends five months in the same mountain sanctuary each year.

It’s the longest insect migration in the world.

We wouldn’t even know about the migratory habits of monarchs if not for the work of Fred and Nora Urquhart. The Canadian couple spent their lives trying to solve the riddle of where the monarchs go in the winter.

Their story is told in the vivid IMAX 3D film, “Flight of the Butterflies.” The movie is now being shown nationwide (find a theater).

While the news for the butterflies this year is grim, Chip Taylor says the same type of citizen scientists who helped the Urquharts initially track the butterflies from Canada to Mexico by putting tags on them, can now help save monarchs.

Taylor is encouraging people to create “monarch way stations,” by planting milkweed in butterfly gardens. Milkweed is the primary food source and breeding ground for monarchs, and is essential to their survival.

Taylor is helping people make these gardens by providing information on the Flight of the Butterflies website and on the Monarch Watch website.


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  • Cynthia

    My first memory is of monarchs in our yard, everywhere. It was 1975 in rural Ridgefield, WA and I was three. Monarchs are worth saving if only for one child’s first memory.

  • PaulCherubini

    Monarch butterflies were spectacularly abundant in the GMO corn and soybean farmlands of the upper Midwest in 2011 and 2010 and they will be again in 2013 (a high abundance of butterfly parasites and predators in 2012 deminished monarch numbers, not pesticides)
    2011: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jhKBj3rRt0 

    2010: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4e3S2sm13g http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJCnU7PB9to

    • Beatriz Moisset

      Interesting videos, but they prove nothing by themselves. Any statistics? Any systematic observations?

  • OregonBell

    “Taylor is encouraging people to create “monarch way stations,” by planting milkweed in butterfly gardens. Milkweed is the primary food source and breeding ground for monarchs, and is essential to their survival”.  Please let Taylor know that the Milk-Weed that the Monarchs use in the Mid West is different from the west coast fly way Milk Weed. The Milk weed plant Showy Milkweed (Asclepias Speciosa) and the Narrow Leaf(Asclepias Fascicularis) is the milkweed for the westCost Flyway.   The West Coast Monarch, is only adapted to the milkweed on its native flyway. When it feeds on the milkweed varieties of the mid-USA flyway it will die.   Also does Taylor know if Milkweed is not easier to propagate   The Docent of the Monarch at Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruze Ca. in 1994. said that they had no luck in propagating milkweed. My understanding is that the seed needs wood smoke to germinate.  

    • PaulCherubini

      What I think is important to understand is that home gardeners cannot help reverse landscape scale monarch population declines.  Why? There are 1,000,000,000′s of milkweed plants in the eastern and central USA that support 100,000,000′s of monarchs and 1,000,000′s of those milkweeds are permanently destroyed each year due to sprawl and more intensive weed control practices on farmlands, pastures
      and roadsides.  Therefore if home gardeners plant 1000′s of milkweed “waystations” each year, they will not offset even 1/10th of 1% of the amount of milkweed permanently lost each year.  So mathematically it is not valid for anyone to claim or infer than home gardeners “can help reverse the monarch declines” by planting milkweed.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1054268083 Dolly Swibes Foster

        I’m sorry, did you say it is not worth it to plant milkweed? For your information, over the past 5 summers I have raised over 500 healthy monarch butterflies FROM MY MILKWEED. Every healthy butterfly raised, helps the total population. 

        • PaulCherubini

          You’re effort and those of other home gardeners could not have helped prevent past milkweed and associate monarch declines nor can they help prevent future milkweed and monarch declines because on average only 1 in 10,000 home gardeners have been interested in planting milkweed.  Here are some examples of other human activities that are going on that will cause further unavoidable landscape scale  declines in milkweed and associated monarch abundance. The US EPA’s ethanol mandate requires increasing volumes of biofuels to be blended  into the gasoline supply each year through 2022: http://tinyurl.com/bluexut
          So Corn Belt farmers have been looking to find ways to expand their acreages. Here are four ways they are going about it:1) REMOVING HEDGEROWS (a narrow strip of trees or bushes that separates one crop field from another) Where, oh where are the hedgerows going? http://tinyurl.com/c2xdcs4 Milkweed commonly grows under the canopy and along the margins of Midwestern hedgerows so it will be destroyed when they are removed.2) REMOVING SHELTERBELTS (thick barriers of trees intended to protect against the wind and reduces erosion). Shelterbelts, one of the great soil conservation measures of the 1930s, are being removed http://tinyurl.com/a2bbd8g Milkweed commonly grows under the canopy and along the margins of Midwestern shelterbelts so it will be destroyed when they are removed.3) REMOVING FENCELINES  Eastern Iowa farm fences disappear, as do livestock operations http://tinyurl.com/cxvc6oz Milkweed commonly grows along fencelines so it will be destroyed when they are removed.4) INSTALLING MORE DRAINAGE TILE in muddy areas on the farm like the sloughs and wetlands in order to make the ground more suitable for growing crops. Minnesota farm drain tiling: Better crops, but at what cost? http://tinyurl.com/agtum5n Milkweed commonly grows in these sloughs and wetlands so it will be destroyed when they are plowed and farmed.

          • Beatriz Moisset

            I agree with you that the main cause of the decline in monarch populations is due to farming practices in the corn belt. What is totally incomprehensible to me is that you ignore the number one culprit: herbicide resistant crops plus herbicides. This results in destruction of the milkweed plants which used to grow alongside corn plants. In fact farming acreage is in decline, according to USDA statistics. On the other hand, the acreage of GMO-herbicide-resistant crops has grown tremendously, to the point it is approaching 90% of crops.

    • Gail

       Genetically there is not any difference between monarch butterflies in the east and west and they will use milkweeds wherever they are available. In Arizona from tagging monarchs we know that they will migrate mainly to Mexico but a few will fly to California and some will spend the winter in Phoenix, Yuma or along the Colorado River.  Monarchs are pretty adaptable under the right conditions. Most milkweed propagates easily, although some are easier than others. You can see videos on how to do so easily on the Butterfly Encounters milkweed seed website. There are several large scale efforts in progress to propagate more milkweed and create a needed seedbank. As to others who have posted videos of monarchs outside GMO fields, that is exactly what they are – outside GMO fields. They are not IN the fields where crops are sprayed with Roundup without detriment due to the genetic modification of the seeds used and the milkweeds growing there are killed. Milkweed growing in cornfields was a major source of the eastern monarch overwintering population.

      • PaulCherubini

        The corn farmers point out that nowadays the corn plants are taller and more tightly spaced than they used to be, hence from July onwards monarch butterflies cannot gain access to the milkweed plants that are growing under the canopy of the crop crop as this video demonstrates: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKmDId55pfc

    • http://www.facebook.com/mona.miller.73 Mona Johnson Miller

      Xerces Monarch Conservation Program
      Xerces Society has been working on making native milkweeds available:  http://www.xerces.org/milkweed/

      • Gail

         Monarch Watch just opened their new  Milkweed Market with various varieties of milkweed plugs available. You can find it on their main web page:
        http://www.monarchwatch.org/ and hit the “Milkweed Market” link. It includes milkweed for the East as well as the West in flats.

  • PaulCherubini

    Monarch butterflies were spectacularly abundant in the GMO corn and soybean farmlands of the upper Midwest in 2011 and 2010 and they will be again in 2013 (a high abundance of butterfly parasites and predators in 2012, not pesticides, deminished the numbers):2011 south-central Minnesota: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jhKBj3rRt0 
    2010 south-central Minnesota: 

  • Lesley

    I visited the sanctuary in Michoacan about 20 years ago and it was amazing. I hope we can find a way to bring their numbers back up.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mona.miller.73 Mona Johnson Miller

    “Now, for the first time in its history, gardening has taken on a role that transcends the needs of the gardener. Like it or not, gardeners have become important players in the management of our nation’s wildlife. It is now within the power of individual gardeners to do something that we all dream of doing: to make a difference.”
    – Doug Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home

  • Karen First

    Thank you so much for bringing attention to the plight of the Monarch Butterflies on your show. Every year we raise and release Monarch Butterflies in my early childhood classroom here in Boston. This powerful story resonates deeply with children and  helps them connect to the much bigger issues of climate change, habitat loss, and cross cultural understanding. I sure wish the Flight of the Butterflies film could be shown here in Boston!

  • PaulCherubini

    From an academic honesty perspective I think is important  to point out that if someone had started  a “plant milkweed” campaign 30 years ago it wouldn’t have done anything to prevent the big monarch population declines we have seen since then caused by sprawl and the intensification of weed control practices on farms and roadsides.  Why? because only around 1 in 10,000 home gardeners are interested in planting milkweed (even in the college town of Lawrence, Kansas which is the headquarters of the milkweed planting campaign) and so that infinitesimally small amount of extra milkweed cannot offset more than a infinitesimally small amount of milkweed that is lost each year on a landscape scale due to sprawl and more intensive weed control practices on farms and along roadsides. 

  • Rich

    Bring Back the Monarch. Plant and conserve milkweed.  Spread the word.

  • Susan

    The way change happens is by getting people more involved. I understand that home gardeners can’t solve the problem alone, but as we grow milkweed and watch the caterpillars appear each year, we have a greater stake in the situation. There are a lot of ways that roadsides and fallow areas could be managed differently to add to the total area in milkweed and other wildflowers. Milkweed is very easy to grow from a plant. It has spreading runners and is perennial (hardy to -33 F). The radio story made an important point that monarchs are like the canary in the coal mine. If they are having trouble, other pollinators are too. This is a problem of such economic importance that farmers will have to make changes in their herbicide-intensive monocrop practices.

  • Karen Rutkowski

    I’m thinking of taking a count of Males/Females this year.  It seemed that I had more Males then Females during the summer of 2012.  My total Counts were way down last year. 

  • John W.

    Since the past few years I have reared about a 100  Monarchs which I released in September. I now have a garden which has about 80 or so  milkweed plants and more come each year. I have the usual Ontario common milkweed and the swamp red milkweed  incarnata and some tropical milkweed also. My milkweed are  between 3 and 4 feet tall, and I spend a lot of time keeping them clean, weed free, with  insect containers to catch the european airwigs, snails, ants and a few others that kill the eggs. Sure takes a lot of time to get it right.

    Most people think that the Monarch does not breed here in Newfoundland, Canada, but it does. Last year I took the liberty of removing the eggs from the garden where they were layed and moved them to a large plastic container and went from there.  Plenty of work but since only about 10% or so make it if they are left in the garden area, I collected all that I could find there and had a 100% success. Those were only feed pure honey and various berries and fruit for 2 days from the time they emerged from the chrysalis state.  Then they were released in the garden by placing them on the buddleia plants. Each of  them stayed around about 2 days or so and then they left.   I was talking to some of my neighbors who said they had seen some strange large butterflies that they had never seen  before. Well, obviously I gave them the lowdown on this and asked that they warn their children not to catch them or do them harm. Indeed we all know what children are like when they are not properly told about this great butterfly.

    However there has been no sign of any monarchs so far this year laying their eggs on my milkweed plants,  but I do expect them soon. It seems  that I get the super generation which ultimately make their way to Mexico. I expect that when the  Monarchs first move in early spring from Mexico through the States and then upper Canada and across part of the Atlantic to our province,  the final stage of generation will be breed when they lay their eggs. Those are the super monarchs that will survive much longer that the usual seasonal ones, and will start the migration to Mexico, which will over winter there and again return next spring  and start this process once again.  

    Since I am retired I dont mind doing this since I feel it certainly is a great privilege to give of ones time in this manner.  Our Monarchs need all the assistance they can get. 

  • kylee sage

    i love monarch butterflies but how many can we save

  • kylee sage

    how do we save them any body know i research so much and cant find anything

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