By Lana Turnbull
Are insect collections still an educational rite of passage? Growing up I can’t remember anyone I knew who didn’t have to make a butterfly net and go roaming in search of flying and crawling creatures, only to put them in the “jar of death” and then mount them in neat rows, each labeled with its common and scientific name. There were the easy ones like beetles, flies and moths, but the crowning glory was a monarch butterfly – the envy of every young lepidopterist. Looking back, the whole exercise seems pretty cruel, even if it did teach us about the insect world.
As I was doing research for an article about plants that attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds for this issue, I learned some amazing and concerning facts about the monarch butterfly. We may know the monarch for its striking beauty, but its real claim to fame is its incredible annual migration from the US in the fall, to central Mexico where it winters each year – a trip of more than 3,000 miles, one way. It is said that when millions of monarchs settle into the boughs of the oyamel fir trees high in the mountains of Mexico, their brilliant undulating wings make it appear as though the mountainsides are ablaze. Each spring the monarchs reverse their trek and strike out for their northern homes again.
I also discovered the monarch lays its eggs exclusively on the milkweed plant. While milkweed is a food source for monarchs and other butterflies, it is the only food monarch caterpillars will eat. Unfortunately, the conversion of wilderness into cropland or development, and the increasing use of pesticide-resistant crops in this country have greatly reduced the amount of milkweed to be found today, diminishing the habitat of monarch butterflies.
Just as I was finishing the article, a story on the national news caught my attention. The report was about severe drops in the numbers of monarchs due to reduced habitat. Their populations actually have experienced a 90% decline in recent years. So serious is the problem, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has set aside $3.2 million dollars to restore 200,000 acres of their habitat, including grants for more than 750 schoolyard habitats and pollinator gardens. There is also a move afoot to classify the monarch as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
So what can we do to help keep the monarch butterfly from fading from existence? It’s simple. We can plant milkweed and other flowering plants in our gardens and parks, so they will find the habitat they need to survive and thrive. It’s a win, win situation really. When we provide plants that attract pollinators like butterflies, bees and hummingbirds, we are not only providing the food and shelter they need, but we are also helping local farmers who need these creatures to efficiently pollinate their crops – crops we need to feed ourselves. It turns out we’re all in this together.
“Synchronized with the seasons and with no sextant to guide the way, these beautiful fragile butterflies annually make a miraculous journey, North and South. It is one of the wonders of nature, and we should do all we can to help this butterfly. For future generations, may the odyssey of the monarch butterfly continue.” Margaret Gratz, Mississippi native, author, illustrator and photographer, from her latest book, Butterflies: At Home in the Earth Lady’s Garden.