In February 2013, the Kanza Group invited Dr. Orley “Chip” Taylor to present a program on “Monarch Conservation: The Challenge Ahead.” For years, Dr. Taylor, a professor at University of Kansas, has been tracking the shifting populations of the migratory Monarch by coordinating a national butterfly tagging program. His Monarch Watch website includes a wealth of data and educational information about this fascinating insect.
One ofthe disturbing points made at the meeting was that climate change has real potential to negatively impact Monarchs, both in their overwintering grounds in Mexico and here. Recent research has shown that the return of the Monarchs from Mexico is triggered by temperature changes. And the extended drought in Texas and Oklahoma has decimated both the wildflowers on which the adults depend as they move northward and the milkweed plants on which their caterpillars must feed.
In March, the bad news from Mexican researchers was that the Monarch population has already reached a record low. Once each year since 1994, the Monarch’s population is measured, based on the total acreage occupied by the overwintering colonies in Mexico. The data indicate that the numbers declined 59% from the previous winter and that the population is 5% of its high in 1997.
Scientists are alarmed by the clear downward trend, but the challenges are many. The Monarch cycles through 3-5 generations during the summer breeding season. Only the final generation migrates to Mexico in fall, then returns the following spring to the Gulf Coast. Before they die, the females lay eggs there on a variety of milkweed plants.
Historically, the U.S. corn belt has produced half the monarchs that migrate to Mexico. However, milkweed habitat has been greatly reduced in the region due to weather extremes and agricultural practices. In Mexico, deforestation, ecotourism, and socio-economic pressures have impacted the restricted and unique forest habitat in which they overwinter, making them increasingly vulnerable to storms, drought, fire and disease.
Migration is inherently risky. Monarchs must find appropriate habitat at both ends of the journey, as well as every stop along the way. Like links in a chain, the loss of one habitat component can break the butterfly’s annual cycle.
What You Can Do
The good news is that you can help strengthen the links in Kansas by creating Monarch habitat. Plant a butterfly garden, which includes nectar plants and especially milkweeds, in your backyard, schoolyard or community. Avoid using pesticides in your garden and yard, even the natural “B.t.” which will attack any caterpillars. Join the Monarch Watch Waystation Program for information and seeds: http://www.monarchwatch.org/waystations/. Buy some milkweed plants at the next Monarch Watch fundraiser in Lawrence on May 11: http://monarchwatch.org/openhouse/.
Become a citizen scientist. Participate in data collection and share your observations. Report on Monarch arrivals and emergence of milkweeds at http://www.learner.org/jnorth/monarch/. Participate in Monarch tagging efforts at http://www.monarchwatch.org/tagmig/tag.htm.
We can make a difference, but the time is now, before we lose more of these amazing butterflies.
P.S. A quick heads up on another important insect issue — May 19-25 is Emerald Ash Borer Awareness Week. This exotic beetle pest was first discovered in Kansas last summer and will be spreading soon to an ash tree near you! Wyandotte County is already under quarantine by the Kansas Dept. of Agriculture to reduce the likelihood of transporting infected wood to other counties. For the facts on the beetle and how you can slow the spread of the infestation, go to www.emeraldashborer.info.
Monarch Butterfly Population at Record Low
By Elaine Giessel, Park Naturalist