Monarchs and Milkweed

Written by Melia Ortiz, ESLLC 2016-2017

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The elegant orange and black stained glass wings of the monarch butterfly adds beauty to every landscape. Sadly, over the past 20 years, their presence has been diminishing rapidly along with the milkweed plant that the monarchs are heavily dependent upon. In fact, since 1996, the monarch population has dropped ninety-five percent. If trends continue, scientist have placed the monarch’s likelihood of extinction between 52 and 62 percent within the next 20 years.

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Each year, monarch butterflies migrate from their summer home in Canada to their winter habitat in Mexico and southern California, a nearly three-thousand-mile journey. Because each butterfly can only travel a short distance, it takes many generations to reach their final destination. Their flight path goes though the Corn Belt of the United States. Throughout the Corn Belt, an increasing amount of herbicides have been used, and unlike the genetically engineered corn and soybeans, milkweed cannot survive the constant spray of herbicides. This has resulted in a dramatic decline in milkweed. Milkweed is a vital resource for the monarch because it acts as a nursery. This perennial herb is toxic to humans and livestock; however, it is the only plant monarch caterpillars can eat. Rather than hurting the caterpillar, the toxins in milkweed act as a protection against predators. For this reason, monarchs exclusively lay their eggs on milkweed plants, so the decline of milkweed has dramatically hindered the monarchs’ ability to reproduce. It is estimated that more than 165 million acres of habitat have been lost.

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This past winter, there was an increase of monarch overwintering in Mexico. While this may seem like great news, it does not prove that the trend has been reversed. This increase is more likely tied to desirable weather conditions than to an actually revival of the monarch population. However, many efforts are currently being made to learn more about and bring back the monarchs. Organizations such as Monarch Watch have been tagging monarchs during their migration with a small sticker on their back wing. This allows researchers to better estimate the monarch population and gain a better understanding of their migration patterns. Also, many schools and other organizations are building butterfly gardens with milkweed to provide a good habitat for migrating monarchs. Such initiative must continue if we want to save this beautiful species.

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