On a Wing and a Prayer - Monarch Butterflies and Home Gardeners
Almost everyone knows about the steady decline of the Monarch butterfly from one source or another. Today is different and the Monarchs need every home gardener. It’s a bad news/good news situation, but there’s a much bigger upside to this story.
The Bad News
The Xerces Society - a leader in Monarch butterfly conservation - released the official Thanksgiving Monarch Overwintering count for the 2018 season. The numbers are grim, with “an all-time record low of 28,429 monarchs counted…This number is an 86% drop from the previous count done at Thanksgiving 2017, when 192,668 monarchs were counted…” This represents “a dizzying 99.4% decline from the numbers present in the 1980s. In short, only one of every 160 monarchs present in the 1980s exists today.”
Here is what that decline looks like -
Graphic used with permission from Xerces Society - permission granted by Matthew Shepherd, Xerces Society Media Manager
This drastic decrease from last year’s count is partially the result of many late-season storms and a wildfire season in the West with unprecedented severity. The bigger, long-term issues are the continued loss and deterioration of suitable habitat including non-native plants, along with increased pesticide use.
Some Historical Perspective
That’s the bad news, and it is terrible indeed - but it’s not the whole story, nor the end of it. Let’s put this into some perspective.
In 2007 and again in 2009, overwintering Monarchs were at record-low numbers but were able to recover somewhat and increase their numbers in the years following. From 2012 through 2016, the population increased to levels higher than the previous decade.
This was the result of local and regional governments, organizations and concerned local citizens creating favorable habitats with milkweed and nectar flowers for the Monarchs to rest, feed, and lay eggs.
Last season’s storms and especially the widespread, massive fires in California and across the western states have severely damaged or destroyed many of those habitats.
What to Do Now
Home gardeners enter the story at this point and start saving the day, one garden at a time. Both the Xerces Society and the Southwest Monarch Study have called for planting a great many more milkweed for the caterpillars and spring-blooming, nectar-giving native flowers for the adults.
Southwest Monarch Study says, “Remember here in the desert regions of the Southwest we have adult monarchs and larva right now and they will begin their spring migration in the coming months. Let’s create more monarch habitats and engage in Citizen Science that can make a difference.”
The solution to this problem - both short and long-term - is more milkweed and nectar plants everywhere there are Monarch breeding areas and migration routes. This means almost everywhere in the US, as new migration routes and breeding areas are being discovered.
Home gardeners are an integral part of the solution, as their widespread, independent, decentralized, private action makes the difference - planting milkweed and nectar plants creating migration and breeding pathways across the different regions. The legions of home gardeners can sow enough seeds to grow into food and nectar for this upcoming spring breeding and migration.
Milkweed is the only plant the Monarch caterpillar can eat, otherwise, it will die.
Yet, planting a stand of milkweed is only half of the solution – the adult Monarch butterflies need nectar and pollen to feed on.
Make sure you plant both milkweed and nectar-producing flowers to keep the adults fed and strong so they can lay lots of eggs and continue their journey each season. Both spring and fall flowering native plants are important as food for the adult butterflies.
The best milkweed to plant is native to your area, hand-grown by experienced growers working to maintain the genetic vigor of the plants. We have partnered with a group growing more than a dozen different milkweed species across Arizona for more than five years.
Seed is grown at different elevations and locations to test the vigor and adaptability to variable conditions, as well as research how well Monarchs utilize them in various places. The seed is hand-grown, hand-harvested, hand-cleaned, and hand-packed, creating the highest quality milkweed seed available.
Terroir Seeds is the exclusive partner with Arizona Milkweeds for Monarchs, offering these unique milkweed species to home gardeners. The sale of each packet of milkweed seeds supports continued on-going research. Volunteer citizen science is the foundation of the group, overseen and backed by professional scientists from Northern Arizona University.
Current research includes:
• Monitoring the habits of the Monarch butterfly and how they use each species of milkweed, much of which is not known even today.
• Determining which milkweeds are susceptible to which pests and diseases, and what to do about them in an integrated, holistic manner.
• Finding which companion plants reduce pest populations on milkweed and which ones attract predators to feed on the pests, such as aphids.
Improving and refining seed germination methods, along with harvesting and cleaning processes.
In the desert Southwest, there are more than 40 species of milkweed, more than 50% of the total diversity in the continental US. Arizona has the second greatest species diversity of milkweeds next to Texas.
What You Can Do
Home gardeners didn’t create this dilemma, but we - you and I - are the best possible resolution in these unsettled times.
Several organizations are working with regional and local governments to get more seed planted, but layers of rules, bureaucracy, and manpower limitations hamper them. For instance, one organization has a goal of planting 5,000 seeds on public lands in Arizona, working with Arizona Game & Fish, U. S. Bureau of Reclamation, Tonto National Forest, and Coconino National Forest.
We can plant that amount - and more - in a week with home gardeners sowing seeds in our own gardens, creating a much larger network of habitat that can’t be mowed or sprayed or removed without notice or permission, unlike on public lands.
As Fiona - our good friend and partner in another milkweed project - said so well, “What we get is priceless. One day, in many gardens around this area and scattered throughout the southwest, the most ephemeral of creatures – a butterfly – will lay her eggs on the milkweed that has been grown there especially for her, and the stunning caterpillar that emerges will have all the nourishment it needs right there. Soon thereafter, through the miracle of metamorphosis, a monarch butterfly will continue the journey. We may only get a fleeting glimpse of this whole cycle, but that’s OK – we just need, it seems, to know that we are part of a bigger whole that is life on earth.”
Will you join us in planting some milkweed and nectar flowers?
Stephen Scott is an heirloom seedsman, educator, speaker, soil-building advocate, locavore, amateur chef, artist and co-owner of Terroir Seeds with his wife, Cindy. Discover a better, holistic gardening approach with their hand-selected heirloom seeds, expert gardening advice, and delicious recipes. They welcome dialogue and can be reached by email or 888-878-5247. Visit their website and sign up for their Newsletter for more articles like this!
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