Monarch butterflies are one of the world’s most recognizable species, and with good reason. In just two weeks, they emerge from jade-green and gold chrysalises to become strikingly colored and uniquely patterned adult butterflies that make an amazing 2,000-mile annual voyage south to Mexico that transcends generations.
These beautiful adventurers and their famous travels are, unfortunately, in jeopardy. Monarchs face increasing perils both in the United States and in their winter homes in Mexico. The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico provides federal protection to the majority of land where the butterflies congregate in winter, though most of the land is privately owned and illegal logging often occurs. Many butterflies face greater dangers here in the United States. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants, which are the only food source for the caterpillars. Ironically, common milkweed is becoming much less common, as open land becomes developed, and land that does remain open (sides of highways, for instance) is sprayed with pesticides and mowed, which ultimately destroys the plant. As a result of these threats, the monarch population declined from 556 million in 2004 to a historic low of 33.5 million in 2014.
How do we ensure monarch butterflies have a future? Giving to organizations that work to conserve the species and their habitats, such as Monarch Rescue, Monarch Watch and the National Wildlife Federation, is a great way to make an impact. There are also several hands-on ways to become involved in monarch conservation, including:
- Plant milkweed. Milkweed is vital to the survival of monarch butterflies; however, the plant’s habitat is currently declining at a rate of 2.2 million acres per year. When purchasing milkweed, be sure to ask if it has been sprayed with pesticides, which can harm the feeding caterpillars. Unsprayed common milkweed and butterfly milkweed will be available for sale at The North Carolina Arboretum’s Monarch Butterfly Day this Saturday, September 17, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Proceeds from the sale will help the Arboretum continue to support monarch butterfly conservation efforts year-round.
- Hand-raise monarch butterflies. Monarchs have experienced a drastic decrease in population, and many conservationists argue that every individual butterfly is exceedingly important. By raising butterflies from eggs to larval caterpillars and releasing them as adult butterflies, you guarantee each butterfly was not eaten or parasitized prior to reaching adulthood. There are great resources for raising monarchs online. You’ll also want to keep lots of milkweed leaves on hand for hungry caterpillars!
- Become a citizen scientist. A citizen scientist is an individual who makes an observation and reports it to a scientific network or organization. Journey North is a citizen science project that encourages people to submit their monarch observations and see how their data is being utilized. Another program is iNaturalist, an online community of naturalists and scientists who submit photos of organisms to be identified, confirmed and used by scientists. If you choose to hand-raise monarch butterflies, you can tag these butterflies with a special identification number that allows their migration to be tracked prior to releasing them. During Monarch Butterfly Day, participants of the Arboretum’s ecoEXPLORE initiative will be invited to tag monarchs and assist with a public butterfly release.
Monarch butterflies present us with an opportunity to take an active role in conservation. This is true whether you are providing a habitat for monarchs in your garden in the form of milkweed and nectar-source flowers; raising monarchs in your kitchen and releasing them in your backyard; or reporting the butterflies you spot on a hike along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Our natural resources are facing threats that can seem insurmountable. The threats to the monarchs are great, but your actions today can pay dividends for the survival of this iconic species in the future. And, getting your hands dirty cleaning caterpillar droppings is well worth the price to witness the magic of a monarch transform and take part in an epic journey.