Ubiquitous no longer describes the beautiful monarch butterfly. Experts say over the past two decades, population has declined from about one billion butterflies in the mid- nineties to just 35 million individuals last winter. Jaret Daniels, associate curator and program director at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera, estimates the monarch butterfly population has declined by as much as 95%. The U S Fish and Wildlife Services will announce in December whether federal protection will be extended to the beautiful pollinator.
What is causing the decline? Herbicide maker Monsanto’s popular weed killer Roundup is blamed for wiping out most of the milkweed plants on farms across America. Monsanto has introduced Roundup Ready crops which resist the herbicide. Farmers, in a race to fill demands for ethanol fuel, are planting more herbicide-resistant crops.
Soy and corn fields across North America were once filled with milkweed, the Monarchs’ host plant, on which they lay eggs. Each species of butterfly has a specific host plant, the only one the caterpillar will eat. On their route to specific over-wintering sites in Mexico, then back home again, Monarchs rely on the milkweed to lay the next generation, and for flowers to nourish them along the migration route.
What can I do to help the iconic Monarch butterfly? Plant milkweed! Learn which of the 103 types is suitable in your area. I recently learned that what I had planted in my North Florida yard was doing as much harm as good, because it did not die back early enough in the fall, delaying Monarch migration. I will be planting an aquatic species of milkweed this year. I am not ready to pull up what I have growing, but will certainly cut it back early in the fall. Plantings along roadsides and fence lines would make good service projects. Farmers would do the world a service by leaving surrounding rows unplanted and unsprayed so that milkweed can co-exist with herbicide resistant plantings. And we can always pray. But prayer without action is just a wish. bto