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Where Have All the Monarchs Gone and What We Can Do About It

Por Maraleen Manos- Jones
August 2019
The unique monarch butterfly, with its annual migration from Canada and the United States to the mountains of Mexico, was once ubiquitous.  Monarchs, as well as other pollinators, are in serious decline, on the precipice of disappearing. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has been considering putting monarchs on the endangered species list for the last few years and will soon make their determination.   
In the summer of 2018, there was an increase in the number of breeding monarchs in the Northeast of the United States, and subsequently in their overwintering habitats in Mexico.  This positive trend can perhaps continue if all of us participate in saving this unique migrating species that weighs less than a gram yet flies over two thousand five hundred miles to a place it’s never been before.  There, in the transverse Neo-volcanic range of mountains in central Mexico, among Oyamel fir trees, are several sacred mountain sanctuaries filled with millions upon millions of monarchs.

Each tree is covered in thousands of monarchs, hanging in clusters or nestled one next to the other on the trunks and along every branch, to keep each other warm in during cold nights. The tree trunks themselves are two degrees F. warmer than the ambient air, as proven in a scientific study by Professor Lincoln Brower. The Oyamel trees protect the butterflies in more ways than one.  Their fir needles act as umbrellas so that when it rains or snows, the monarchs are protected from getting wet, and perhaps freezing if the temperatures drop.

An intact forest canopy regulates the microclimate: the temperature, moisture, wind, and air circulation, protects the watershed, and prevents mudslides. Deforestation has been increasing and encroaching in and around the monarchs’ mountain hideaways for years, with dire consequences. I have seen dead monarchs encased in snow at various times over the four decades I have been visiting, but never as bad as 2002.

Freezing temperatures followed a severe snowstorm.  That year, I stood knee deep in dead and dying monarchs, especially in the areas decimated by deforestation.  The most amazing monarchs amazed me once again.  The warmth of decomposing monarchs enabled many others to revive, slowly flying up and out of the piles of dead ones.  It was extraordinary. Rebirth and regeneration were unfolding in front of me, an embodiment of the Butterfly Goddess herself. It was fortunate that year the monarch population was in the billions since there was significant mortality, more than half perished.

Monarchs are assailed at every juncture of their life cycle, both on their singular long journey south in autumn, and the two or three generations traveling northward in the spring. Dangers abound in and around their overwintering habitats and in their breeding grounds in the United States. It will take concerted effort to help prevent the monarchs from reaching the limits of their resilience, which is rapidly approaching unless we all take action.

Major issues for monarchs, all pollinators, and ultimately all of us are:
- climate change
- loss of habitat
- deforestation
- overuse of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers
- agricultural land that has become mono-cultures for miles on end
- lawns and golf courses
- backyard bug zappers

The monarch population has fluctuated each year over the past four decades, from thirty million some years to over one hundred million covering about fifty or sixty acres on other years. Never over the years had I encountered what I did in 2014 when I returned for a friend’s one-hundredth birthday in the little pueblo in the shadow of the monarchs.  There were about three million monarchs covering only one acre. 

In the winter of 2018/19, the monarch population ‘recovered’ so that there were about six million monarchs covering six acres on Cerro Pelon. This was the first upward trend in six years. The question is will this upward trend continue? The monarch population has a long way to go to reach a robust population, similar to what it was in the 1970’s. At the same time, the western monarch population, which migrates up and down the California coast, is down by 86% this year.  The challenges to humans and all living creatures were profound with drought, fires, and intense rain episodes followed by mudslides. Yet, butterflies continue to astound. There are reports of millions of migrating Psinted lady butterflies in California.

The monarchs now begin their northward migration fully one month earlier than in the 1970’s. Most are on their way north by mid-March rather than mid-April.  As far back as the mountain people can remember, the monarchs always arrived on November first, El Dia de Muerto, the Day of the Dead.  It is said the monarchs are the old souls returning to the sacred mountains of their ancestors. The mountain people told me that up until recently when the monarchs were flying in you couldn’t see the sky for three days. Now, there is a lighter flow of monarchs slowly arriving a week or two late.

There never used to be much rain from November through April, the dry season when the monarchs are in the mountains; now there are more intense rain and snow events.  As the scientist, Dr. Karen Oberhauser, has shown, climate change is affecting the microclimate in the monarchs’ winter home.

In an article in the January 2019 issue of Scientific American, Mexican researchers are experimenting with moving Oyamel fir trees four hundred meters further up the mountain to compensate for increased temperatures due to climate change.  They estimate they have till 2035 to successfully accomplish this task.
No matter how some deny science, reality will shock them when they no longer have chocolate, oranges or almonds among the many foods we now enjoy.  It is estimated that one third of our food supply will disappear s a result of climate change and over use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers.

Milkweed used to grow around the edges of cornfields.  No more. In the center of our country, once a major breeding ground of the monarch butterfly, there are miles without end of glyphosate-doused plants, mostly corn and soy, also treated with neonicitinoids. No more hedgerows. No milkweed, or wildflowers or birds or bees or butterflies either.  Iowa, for example, has lost 98% of its milkweed.

However, in order to avoid the United States Fish and Wildlife Service designating the monarch butterfly an endangered species, many players are stepping up to the plate.  In Iowa, there is a consortium of fifty groups, including the U.S.F.W.S., and Monsanto among them, that are determined to plant hundreds of thousand of acres of milkweed to prevent the disappearance of monarchs.  President Obama, through his pollinator initiative, designated five million dollars to create a safe greenway along Route 35, a major north/south monarch migratory pathway.  Michelle Obama established a pollinator garden by the White House and had it endowed, She was also involved in creating the One Million Pollinator Garden challenge. There are already over 1,040,000 individuals who have signed on.  In the meantime, President Trump has taken by eminent domain a few hundred acres of the North American Butterfly Association Butterfly Sanctuary and Park in Mission, Texas to build his wall.

The struggle to avoid ‘an insect apocalypse’ and a diminishment of bio-diversity continues.  We all have a part to play. You really can help save the day, whether you have a window box in the city, a small backyard in the suburbs, or a large rural property.  It’s really easy and ever so satisfying.  I’ve had monarchs emerge in Brooklyn from potted milkweed and other flowers planted on a ledge outside my window.  What to plant you ask?

Native plants attract native species and are easier to take care of than non-natives.  There are abundant resources for whatever region you live in as listed at the end of this article.  Pledge not to use chemicals, but go organic, for the health of our pollinators and for your own health.  Glyphosate has been implicated as a possible carcinogen by a worldwide panel of scientists through the United Nations.

As of the summer of 2019, the big box stores have promised to phase out selling plants treated with neonicitinoids.  What and why are these ‘neonics’ so dangerous?  When seeds are treated ‘neonics’, the chemical reaches every cell of the plant: stem, leaf and flower.  It is in the nicotine family and slowly kills any bug that consumes it.  It has been shown that bees become addicted; when proffered plants with or without this insecticide, the bees will invariably choose the treated plant, which leads to their demise.

Before you buy your plants, ask if they have been treated with any insecticide.  As of March 2019, Lowe’s phased out 81% of plants treated with ‘neonics’ due to public pressure. We hope they, as well as other stores, will help save our pollinators rather than luring them to their deaths with ‘perfect’ plants with nary a nibble.  The irony of neonicitinoids is they were supposed to increase the crop yield of soybeans, but have been found not to do so.

A great challenge facing our pollinators is the great expanse of lawns that now cover forty million acres in the United States, 1.9% of our land.  Perfectly green and uniform lawns are not beautiful; they are deadly for our pollinators and other living creatures, including us. These lawns consume a whopping 86 million tons of pesticides each year, which is more per acre than Big Agriculture uses, which is quite a feat.

Up until the early fifties, clover was very much a part of lawns.  Clover absorbs nitrogen from the air and brings it into the earth where the grass and plants use the natural fertilizer. Get rid of clover and use chemical fertilizer instead has been the relentless message of the petro-chemical industry. Dandelions were also an acceptable part of the landscape since folks made wine from the flowers, medicines and tonics from the roots, and ate the nutritious young green leaves in salads.  The petro-chemical industry made these beneficial “weeds” into public enemies that had to be eradicated with herbicides.  It was a very successful ad campaign that the new medium of television helped disseminate starting in the early 1950’s.
We humans have been bamboozled into thinking that perfectly uniform and green lawns are beautiful.  Actually, they are dead zones that harm you and your family, kill bees and butterflies, destroy the healthy organisms in the soil while depleting the water table.  Seventy percent of a family’s water use goes toward lawns.  My lawn never gets watered while staying green during the driest of times. It is alive with a rich a tapestry of colors with wild strawberries, violets, plantain, clover, dandelions, creeping sedum and myrtle.

Talk to the owners of your golf club, and ask them to go green.  They will save on water and the expense of all those chemicals.
Each of us can take responsibility for the little patch of earth upon which we stand.  Start with a little personal garden, then work with others in your communities. The effect of a butterfly’s wing can be felt around the world.  We certainly know the trajectory and impact of negative news, but the same is true for every positive act that ripples out to the universe.
There is a loss of over two million acres of pollinator habitat to make room for housing developments, malls, and roads in the United States every year.  Then we add pollution of air, soil, and water.  The delicate yet powerful monarch flies on in spite of the obstacles and challenges, with Nature's blessing and grace, and with the help of ever more needed champions along the way.  We need to create safe and connecting habitats, pollinator pathways in all our neighborhoods.

Help create pollinator pathways through your neighborhood.  Talk to your neighbors.  Organize planting a public butterfly/pollinator garden in your communities, in front of your library or town hall.  Ask your town, county and local state departments of transportation officials not to mow milkweed on the sides of roads in August and September, when tens of thousands of monarch caterpillars are developing. 

We can save our pollinators one garden at a time.  Each one, teach one.
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