Monday, July 4, 2011

Where are the Monarch butterflies this year?

Over the years, I have purposely allowed Common Milkweed to naturalize on my land, because it is the food plant of the Monarch butterfly larva.  The area where I live is on the migration route and a breeding grounds for the larvae.  (In fact, the Monarch is the state butterfly of Minnesota.  I consider my place to be a butterfly sanctuary.)  The caterpillars will only eat plants in the Milkweed family -- which include not only the Common Milkweed, but also Butterfly Flower ( formerly known as Butterfly Weed, but renamed "flower" by retail greenhouses) and Aesclapia varieties.   So it's a good idea to have some of these plants in your  butterfly garden if you want to attract Monarchs.

In past years, I could go out into the field this time of year and, within minutes, find either larvae or eggs from Monarchs, as well as see the females fluttering from plant to plant laying more eggs. This year, zilch, zero, nada.  I wanted to find some eggs and/or caterpillars to raise so my little grandson could watch them grow and pupate.  A few years ago his older brother, at around age three, was amazed to see an adult Monarch emerge from the pupa. "Butterfly in there!" he exclaimed in delighted surprise. He also delighted in releasing the butterflies. Now his brother is about the same age and spending daycare time with us, so I wanted to do this project again. I went in search of larvae or eggs, but found not a single one. I must have looked under the leaves of a hundred plants or more, with no luck.  So what happened?

It's hard to say.  Did all those fires in the Southwest kill the Monarchs as they migrated from Mexico or the Gulf states?  Was the long cold spell here in Minnesota this spring too much for those who did arrive?  Are they being killed off by genetically-modified corn pollen from plants with BT (Bacillus thuringensis) built in to kill corn earworms -- and any other caterpillars it comes in contact with?  Is climate change upsetting the migration cycle?  Is it a combination of all these things?  We do know that their wintering habitat in Mexico is shrinking, due to illegal logging of the areas where they normally go.   In addition, there are fewer and fewer places for Monarchs to stop along the way.

Female Monarch
(Photo by Kenneth Dwain Harrelson
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
 Monarch butterflies travel north at about 50-100 miles per day.  The butterflies don't make a single trip from Mexico to Minnesota.  Instead, they breed along the way, then their offspring continue the journey.  It take 3 or four generations for them to reach Minnesota from Mexico.  In other words, they travel in stages, as spring moves northward and flowers become available for nectaring and Milkweed plants for breeding.  You can read more about the migration and see a map at this site:

Only once in my life have I seen a migrating flock passing through Minnesota.   It was many years ago, when I was still in college.  A fellow student and I were driving along a back country road when the call of nature came, so we pulled over and I  went into the woods to pee.  Suddenly I was surrounded by fluttering Monarchs.  There must have been three or four hundred of them.  It was a magical moment I will never forget.  I called to my buddy to come see, and he was amazed, too.   Of course, I didn't have a camera with me (I never seem to at these moments) so the only record of this event is in my memory - and I don't even remember exactly where it was.  But I'll never forget the wonder of it!

Even if I could remember the place, I'm not sure that patch of woods still exists.  The land is becoming more and more developed along the migration route, with fewer "way stations" for the butterflies to breed and feed.   So one way you can help the Monarchs is to plant milkweed for them.  Each fall, I harvest the milkweed seeds on my land and sell them in my eBay store, The Happy Rooster, for butterfly gardeners.   I have both the Common Milkweed and what I call Swamp Milkweed, the Aesclapia species with the narrower leaves that likes ditches and other damp areas.  I do a pretty good business with this, since commercial seed companies don't offer such "weeds" in their catalogs.  In this way, I am doing my little bit to help Monarchs survive.  You can do the same:  Be a good Monarch steward and plant some milkweed in your butterfly garden this fall -- help save our state butterfly.


Eric Baumholder said...

You might want to warn your readers that the common milkweed is legally considered a 'noxious weed' in the US, and that efforts to spread the plants could result in criminal penalties. I'm a farmer, and I've never had a problem with milkweed.

I know Mexico has a real problem with habitat loss for the Monarchs, but we up north have a similar problem. There's virtually zero milkweed plants in farm fields, which means roadside ditches is where you usually find the plants. If you're lucky, because the Department of Transportation mows the ditches.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Actually, that is not entirely true anymore. Although it is still on the list agriculturally in terms of harvesting hay, planting cover crops, etc., you can also buy Milkweed seeds from numerous Monarch conservation sites. It is included in many kits for creating "Monarch Waystations" to help the migration, and is recommended for butterfly gardens. In fact, the Monarch Watch site even gives instructions for how to harvest the seeds.

I have never heard of anyone being arrested for planting it in a butterfly garden, especially since there is a great deal of concern now about the declining populations of these butterflies. Lots of people also sell Common Milkweed seed on eBay for butterfly gardens (a quick search just now brought up 10 listings besides me) and I'm sure if the USDA wanted to bust us for that, it would have happened long ago, because I happen to know the govt. regularly monitors eBay for violations of the Endangered Speices Act, etc.

But if people are worried about thi, they can plant some of the other Aesclapia species.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Here's the link for the Monarch Watch waystation kit which, as you can see, contains Common Milkweed in its mix:

Anonymous said...

Rooster613, Have you found anything more about the butterflies? I live in Washington, DC. I we bought a house 2 years ago and have two large OLD butterfly bushes in the back yard. For the past two years we enjoyed dozens of Zebra and Monarch butterflies constantly visiting the two bushes. This you, like you, we have seen ZERO. What happened to them???


Yonassan Gershom said...

Anonymous, i don't have any answers, but we are apparently not the only people noticing this. here are two sites of interest with more discussions on this:

WendyFromNY said...

I realize I am a little late posting here, but would like to add to this conversation. I live in central NYS and have an old 18 acre farm field that we are letting get a little wild and milkweed proliferates here. I too, have found chrysalises and brought them home to watch them open. This year I have seen maybe one monarch butterfly. About five years ago on an early autumn afternoon, we started to notice many monarchs flying south over our field. Then more, until there were hundreds, possibly thousands! I went below our field to a hedgerow of tall trees, and the butterflies were apparently roosting there for the night. It was like you said, thousands of butterflies, jockeying for a sleeping spot, apparently tired, they hardly moved when I approached them. The next day there were less traveling south. And then it ended. Do they have natural highs and lows in their populations? I am old and I have never seen such an abundance of butterflies, all on a mission to go to a wintering spot they have never seen. Amazing.

JOY Krauthammer, MBA said...

Last month I stopped into WILD WINGS store in Studio City, CA and saw Monarchs in their indoor butterfly habitat.

In the spring of 2005, for TWO FULL WEEKS until Shabbat arrived, Painted Ladies came by the millions through my garden non-stop, heading North over my roof on the hill where I live. It was Hashgachah Pratit, Divine Providence, because I had yearned to see them when I had read about them.

BlesSings for butterflies,
Joy Krauthammer

Yonassan Gershom said...

UPDATE June 2012: This year, we seem to be back to normal with Monarchs here in MN -- I am happy to report that I'm finding lots of eggs and caterpillars again, we currently have 15 pupae from ones we raised indoors, and there were 5 more larvae I gave away to a friend for her kids to raise, plus plenty more outdoors.

We had a VERY early spring, with no late frosts like last year, and lots of rain for the milkweeds. On the other hand, we have far fewer hummingbirds than usual. I am wondering if they had trouble mgrating across all those wildfires in the Southwest.

Anonymous said...

I live in vandalia ohio, 2 yrs ago my neighbor and i released 98 monarchs, last year only 9, this year we have found none and we have plenty of flowers and milkweed we have allowed to grow in our flower beds. Where are they? There are several "nature" areas in my area and I do not see many flying around, and no eggs when checking the plants. Really miss them.

Yonassan Gershom said...

UPDATE on noxious weed lists: Common Milkweed (Aesclapias syriaca) is no longer on the Federal USDA list.

To see if it is still on your state list go here. (It's not on the Minnesota list.)

There has been a lot of concern about Monarchs lately, so I suspect the government(s) are re-evaluating the wisdom of trying to eradicate this plant. But as I said in the article, if there is concern about planting Common Milkwed, you can always go with another milkweed species.

Yonassan Gershom said...

July 2013 update: Once again, bad weather seems to be affecting monarch populations here. This time, it was a month of constant rain. Milkweeds are already 3 feet tall and budding out and I have not seen one single monarch, nor any eggs or larvae. I am wondering if, in addition to the rain, the fires in the Southwest are affecting them also?

Yonassan Gershom said...

I saw on the news here in MN that we apparently lost a whole generation of monarchs this year, due to bad weather in TX and along the migration route north. They said Milkweeds emerged too late for them to breed. (Spring was 3 weeks late here.) Milkweed now blooming here and have found only 2 eggs and seen only one butterfly.