As summer fades into autumn, one of nature’s most impressive displays begins! The monarch butterfly’s annual 2,000 mile migration is unique in the whole world. Unfortunately, we’re in danger of losing this incredible natural phenomenon.
Each year, the migration begins as monarchs wake from a long winter’s hibernation in the forested mountains of Mexico. They journey northward seeking milkweed plants, where they will lay their eggs before dying. The caterpillars feed only on the leaves of the milkweed plant, storing up bitter toxins that make them unappetizing to hungry birds. After cocooning themselves in a chrysalis, the caterpillars emerge as adult butterflies. The whole cycle from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly takes a little more than a month.
The newly adult monarchs continue northward, following the growth of fresh milkweed. Throughout the summer, the butterflies will repeat this cycle for three to four more generations, reaching as far north as Canada. The final generation of the year then turns around and begins the long flight south to their wintering grounds in Mexico.
Unfortunately, this incredible journey is threatened. The monarch migration’s success rests on everything going right for the butterflies – from finding enough milkweed for their caterpillars, to having the right kind of wintering habitat, even the weather cooperating. Logging in Mexico’s mountains has removed large swaths of the monarch’s wintering grounds. Improvement in agricultural technology and weed control, while great for farmers, has drastically reduced the amount of milkweed found in the fields.
In the winter of 2013-2014, the number of wintering monarchs reached its lowest recorded point – where previous years had seen butterflies covering 45 acres of Mexican forest, the numbers had shrunk to cover only 1.65 acres. That’s about one and a quarter football fields. You could have fit the entire migrating monarch population into the Great Bend High School football stadium.
While we can’t really control the weather, or Mexico’s logging industry, we can help replace some of the milkweed that used to grow wild. 2014 saw a huge effort by conservationists and butterfly enthusiasts to add milkweed and nectar plants to home gardens. These efforts will only be more important to the monarch’s survival in coming years.
It’s pretty easy to add butterfly friendly plants to your garden! Flowers like Black-eyed Susans, Asters, Liatris (blazing star or gay feather), Pentas, Coreopsis, Butterfly Weed, or Coneflowers are all favorites of butterflies, and are beautiful additions to any garden. For monarchs, milkweed species like Butterfly Milkweed or Tropical Milkweed are easy to grow and have lovely flowers.
Several organizations are working hard to help preserve the monarch butterfly’s amazing migration – Journey North (http://www.learner.org/jnorth/monarch/) tracks monarch counts and sightings while providing great information and resources for individuals who want to learn more. Monarch Watch (http://www.monarchwatch.org/index.html) is an educational and research program based at the University of Kansas. Monarch Watch runs the groundbreaking monarch tagging program which helped reveal the flight paths of the migrating monarchs. The Kansas Wetlands Education Center participates in the tagging program each year, including several opportunities for the public to get involved.
While the monarch’s future is uncertain, with care and help from nature lovers across the country there is hope! If you want to help this amazing butterfly, contact the KWEC for more information (1-877-243-9268). We can help you plan your butterfly garden, learn to identify butterfly species, and offer lots of volunteer opportunities to assist in research, education, and conservation.