precarious time for monarchs and their migration

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, University of Minnesota Monarch Lab (photo courtesy Dr. Oberhauser)‘WHERE ARE THE MONARCH BUTTERFLIES this year?’ one of many 2013 emails on the topic asked me. Headlines about monarch decline seem to confirm gardeners’ observations: Populations of the once-familiar orange-and-black creatures are not what they were.  What’s going on, and how bad is it?  Is there anything we can do? I invited conservation biologist Dr. Karen Oberhauser, a University of Minnesota professor and leading force in its Monarch Lab, who has studied Danaus plexippus for almost 30 years, to my latest radio show to explain.

prefer the podcast?

IN OUR CHAT on my public-radio show and podcast, Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota Monarch Lab answered many of my monarch questions. Listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The September 16, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fourth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

the 2013 numbers: how bad a decline?

Monarch on confelower; photo courtesy Monarch Lab.INDEED, SAYS OBERHAUSER (above) the 2013 data aren’t rosy. Counts are made at various life stages, including during spring and fall migration, and the areas occupied in overwintering times (in Mexico and California) are also measured, yielding what may be the most accurate numbers on total population.

“Last year [2012] at the overwintering sites, the area occupied was at only 60 percent of its previous low,” she says. “It had been declining, but that was astonishingly low.”

The migration-monitoring program Journey North also reported lower stats in 2013’s cold spring. And though the numbers were only preliminary when we spoke that fall, University of Minnesota’s Monarch Larva Monitoring Program seems to indicate that “we’re at about 20 to 30 percent of our average,” Oberhauser says, acknowledging that these drastically lower numbers might be a “new normal.” But she’s not sounding defeated, by any means.

A big positive: A lot of people are interested in monarchs. “Though it will be difficult to make up for all the habitat we’ve lost, we can make that ‘new normal’ as good as we can.”  (Ways to help are father down this page.)

what going wrong for monarchs?

MONARCH DECLINE is a problem with multiple causes, says Oberhauser. The three big factors: habitat loss, chemicals and changing weather with many extreme events.

  • Habitat loss has resulted from land shifted to agriculture, suburban sprawl or ex-urbanization—“wherever there is Kentucky bluegrass” instead of former habitat, Oberhauser says—and other development, or even activities like mowing, such as along so many miles of highways.
  • The widespread use of chemicals in agriculture and otherwise has hit monarchs two ways: Herbicides can kill off milkweeds that once sustained larvae, leading to the loss of their host plant, and insecticides (used to kill adult mosquitoes, for instance) can kill any insects (though mosquito larvicides don’t affect monarchs).
  • Increasingly frequent aberrations in climate can be costly, too, whether extremes of cold, drought or other forces–especially when they occur during migration.

an endangered phenomenon: monarch migration

EVEN MORE than the butterfly itself, it’s the astonishing phenomenon of monarch migration that seems to be endangered.

“The migration really depends on a long chain of habitat, and if any links in that chain are broken, it’s very possible that we would lose the phenomenon,” says Oberhauser, who again offers a bright-ish counterpoint:

“But monarchs themselves are a very resilient or ‘plastic’ species—meaning they have behavioral plasticity—they can basically change their behavior to be appropriate for the environment they find themselves in.”

Though monarchs are a New World species, they have found their way to Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Southern Spain, Portugal–very different places from where they evolved. “And when they get to a new place they just kind of do the right thing,” says Oberhauser. In Hawaii, for instance, they don’t need to migrate. In Australia, they need to migrate out of dry areas part of the year. And so on. Adaptable.

how does monarch migration work?

IN FALL, MONARCHS in the northern parts of the country and into Canada are seeking nectar sources to fuel up for their flights south.  They’ll fly all the way all the way to somewhere along the California coast (if they start out West), or down into Mexico from the East, and will stay there throughout the winter.

“What they need there is a safe place that will shelter them, but can’t be too hot—which would burn up all their fat reserves,” says Oberhauser, “and it can’t be too cold, either.”

Around the middle of March, the overwintering monarchs start to leave Mexico (or California) for the journey north.  Few make it all the way back; they lay eggs along the way, in northern Mexico and the Southern U.S., and those subsequent generations eventually continue moving up the continent.  More generations are born up north in summertime, the last of which start the move southward again. A full chart on the life cycle is on this page at the Monarch Lab website, with a map and explanation also at the Monarch Joint Venture site.

how can we help monarchs?

Milkweed by David Dube, courtesy Monarch Lab website.The MOST IMPORTANT ways individuals, including gardeners, can help monarch butterflies:

1. Try to make as much habitat available as possible. Unmow some of that monoculture of lawn; plant milkweed and nectar sources as part of the wilder area.  (Oberhauser’s average-sized yard has 117 milkweed plants in it, for instance. It can add up, if we all help. “There’s a lot of Kentucky bluegrass out there,” she points out.)

Monarch larvae, or caterpillars, mostly eat milkweed (Asclepias), though the larvae can feed on a few other genera in what used to be in the milkweed family—but no longer are classified that way. One of the plants is Cynanchum laeve, or sand vine. Adult butterflies use various flowering plants as nectar sources, including milkweeds; eupatoriums such as boneset and Joe-Pye weed; goldenrods; asters; blazing star or Liatris; ironweed or Vernonia; many daisy-like plants and more.

  • Which milkweed? To identify which milkweed (Asclepias) species are best suited to your habitat, get the pdf chart here.
  • Using native plants: One of the Monarch Joint Venture members, called Wild Ones, has a “Wild for Monarchs” campaign, promoting native plants in people’s yards and gardens. Get more info.
  • More downloads: An entire selection of free downloadable publications, including that one, can be had at this link.

2. Volunteer to be a citizen scientist in behalf of monarchs–even if you only have a few milkweeds, says Oberhauser. The more data the better.  Here’s a list (in a pdf) of all the organizations around the country. The Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, Journey North, and Project Monarch Health are possibilities. Or tag monarchs to help study their fall migration, either through Monarch Watch in eastern North America, or the Southwest Monarch Study in the west.

3. Donate to conservation organizations like the Monarch Butterfly Fund or the Monarch Joint Venture. These organizations work on monarch conservation in Mexico and the US, respectively.

(All photos courtesy of the Monarch Lab website.)

  1. Terri says:

    I’ve been obsessed with milkweeds since I listened to this episode! I’ve only seen one monarch all year–just the other day.

    I’m in Wisconsin Dells for the weekend. It’s only a 2-hour drive or so–I live in northern Illinois. I saw hundreds and hundreds of milkweeds along the sides and meridians of I-90, all in various stages of turning yellow. (It looks like they are letting those areas grow native prairie plants, yay!) Finally at one point where there was less traffic than there had been, I pulled over to the side, jumped out and grabbed four seed pods off a milkweed.

    I hope they are ripe enough to provide viable seeds. My next mission is to Google how to propagate milkweeds. :)

  2. Debby says:

    Predation of the monarch caterpillars is also a huge issue in their survival, less than 5% of eggs laid on milkweed survive on their own. We have been collecting Monarch eggs and caterpillars for at least 10 years, raising them in screened boxes and butterfly tents, feeding them fresh leaves each day, releasing them when they emerge. Although we have only seen 3 adult Monarchs this year in our native plant filled yard, we have collected hundreds of eggs, raised them successfully, and thus far released more than 50 adults. Since they were very late in coming to PA (mid-July), we have approx 200-300 yet to emerge this week and next. So we have turned 3 into hundreds to send on migration. Small steps like this help counter the losses by providing more adults to migrate. And hoping some will make it through the droughts and the habitat loss to lay eggs of the generations that will return next year. It is a BIG commitment, raising the caterpillars, but sp worth it for a beautiful, unique migratory species that may be going extinct!

    1. Onoosh says:

      John: We’re in Spartanburg, and have had Monarchs come through on migration. But not, sadly, this year. Haven’t seen a single one. :-(

  3. Jean says:

    I live in Va Beach and have planted host and nectar plants for several years and have enjoyed the butterflies. This year I increased the milkweed to 10′ X3′ area hoping to attract more butterflies, but I was not successful. I saw no monarchs this year. Some of my friends have seen a few, but not like previous years. The landscapers at the apartments where I live killed all my milkweed when they sprayed which they have never done. They are going to replace my plants so I’ll keep my fingers crossed for next year. I did released over 100 black swallowtails that kept me busy.I am thinking positive thoughts and sending healing energy for the butterflies.

  4. Brigitte says:

    Thank you for sharing. Is this an error in your article?: all the way all the way

    They’ll fly all the way all the way to somewhere along the California coast (if they start out West), or down into Mexico from the East, and will stay there throughout the winter.

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