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Many experts who have studied this unique phenomenon for decades believe that we may soon see the end of the large migrations of monarchs which have so amazed us for generations. Nowhere else in the world does any butterfly do what this one does , completing a round trip journey of approximately 3,000 miles every year, and taking four generations to complete, the newgenerations following their parents by instinct alone.. Dr. Lincoln Brower, from Sweetbriar College in Virginia, is recognized as one of the world's leading experts on the monarch migration.. He responded to my recent E-mail query about the significance of the very late migration experienced here in this area of Virginia. His summary was, "overall, monarchs are struggling versus human encroachment everywhere." For further information on the subject he attached a reprint of a recently published article: Brower_et_al_2011_InsectConsDiv
So many factors must be just right at each stage of the cycle as eggs are laid, larvae grow, chrysalides hang waiting for the metamorphosis, and new adults take to the air to travel their part of the path north in the spring and south in the fall. If the weather is not beneficial, if food is not available for the young, if nectar is not available to sustain the adults on their way, if roosting areas in the wintering locations are lacking ………! Well, all of these problems have been occurring with increasing frequency in the late 1990’s and all through the 2000’s. As a result, numbers of monarchs counted at the end of the journey in Mexico have declined drastically.
My own concern for the monarch increased this September when the expected numbers of migrants had not arrived by the middle of the month. At that time I had only seen two. Discussions with others in the vicinity revealed that monarchs were apparently scarce this year. Sightings remained low until what should historically have been the end of the big wave. The expected midpoint of the migration here at latitude 37N should have been Sept.27-Oct. 1. Normally, some should have been arriving as early as the last week of August or first of September, laying eggs on available milkweed. Instead, my neighbors and I found few eggs or caterpillars this year. When the larger numbers of monarchs finally came through, beginning Oct 6, most of the milkweed was old and dry, hardly suitable caterpillar food. Additionally, many of the sources of nectar available a month earlier were no longer in bloom, denying the butterflies the food needed to replenish fat stores for the long trek south. The adults coming through at this time showed no inclination to lay eggs, or even to linger on the remaining flowers.
My neighbors and I managed to tag 75 of these travelers for the Monarch Watch tracking program as they passed through here from Oct. 6 to Oct. 20, with a few stragglers seen as late as early November. We will follow the fate of this fall migration with concern and great interest. If you would like to check on the migration progress as well, you can find regular updates at http://www.MonarchWatch.org.
Perhaps some of you may say, "Why all the concern over a single butterfly?" The best answer I can offer is the thought expressed by the great naturalist John Muir. In his book, "My First Summer In The Sierra", Muir wrote "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." As complex as the reasons for the monarch decline, are the unknown impacts of this decline on the rest of the ecosystem.
Meanwhile, is there anything we can do to stop or reverse this trend? We can't do anything to change the weather or its effects. We can do little to stop the ongoing destruction of overwintering forests in Mexico by illegal lumbering. We can, however, provide habitat in the U.S. for mighrating monarchs. Much previous habitat has been lost in recent years as farmers have converted to herbicide resistant crops, which they then keep free of weeds (including milkweed) by spraying with herbicide. The spread of shopping malls and suburbs has further decreased suitable habitat, as people tend to plant non-native plants, which none of our native butterflies and moths can eat. In my next post I'll have some practical, and enjoyable suggestions for things anyone can do to help in the effort.
I'd like to close with a reminder of mankind's responsibility from the One who planted the first garden.
Gen. 2:8 "The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed."
Gen. 2"15 "Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it."
Gen. 1:26 also says that we are to have "dominion over every living thing that moves on the earth", but nowhere does it suggest that we have permission to destroy, only to "tend and keep". We must not forget that every action of ours will have consequences that can be beneficial, or harmful, to ourselves and others.
The next time I post the topic will be some practical suggestions on "Gardening For Beauty And Butterflies"