Where are all the monarchs? It’s been the top question asked around the nature center this season. Those miracles in orange and black that startle our logical minds with their proven ability to migrate fully across a continent into the same safe haven in the forests of Mexico year after year are painfully, obviously missing this summer. And it’s not just us here in Ohio who aren’t finding them; across their entire range, the butterflies have been scarce, inciting much alarm among monarch enthusiasts everywhere.
Monarchs are one of many Ohioans' favorite wildlife species
So where are they? As with most of life’s questions, the answers are neither direct nor singly focused. As creatures whose life cycles depend on the successfulness of multiple generations spanning across the lands of three countries, monarchs have a number of jeopardies to face. To understand what is happening to them, we must understand the complexities of their existence.
Each year starting in February, monarchs wake up from hibernation, where they had spent the past few months concentrated in the millions among the fir trees of the mountainous forests of Mexico. These butterflies- some nearly eight months old and already having made a journey south from as far north as Canada- will move again, this time northward, until they reach their final destination in the states of the southern U.S. where they mate, lay eggs, and then die. These eggs hatch into caterpillars that then, after completing metamorphosis (a miracle in itself), make another, shorter migration than their parents had, perhaps up to the central U.S. where they themselves then mate, lay eggs, and die. Twice more these generational movements occur, with each subsequent group of butterflies only having a few brief weeks to live and complete their northward-bound destinies. Finally, from late August through October, a fourth generation is born, some up as far as Northern Canada. It is this “super-generation” that will journey thousands of miles across countries, highways, cities, and storms to arrive at their wintering grounds, which span less than 20 acres in the middle of a Mexican mountain forest. They will hibernate there for the winter, until the earliest hints of spring awaken them to start the journey all over again. How these millions of butterflies manage to converge onto the very same trees their great-great-grandparents had hibernated on is a phenomenon not able to be explained by modern science- a fact which I just adore.
Every year, millions of monarchs return the same trees in Mexico that their great-great-grandparents once lived in. How do they doi it? No one knows!
With all the obstacles in their path, the odds are really stacked against monarch butterflies, and the fact is that weather events like the drought and heat of 2012 can significantly reduce their numbers, as was seen by a population spanning only 7 acres of forest last winter, down from the average of 17 acres. As changes continue to affect our global climate, we may anticipate that the predicted increase in severe weather events like storms, droughts, heat waves, and flooding will continue to create a more difficult world for monarchs. But it isn’t climate alone; major changes in the way we humans manage our landscapes may be the nail in the coffin for this species.
A newly hatched monarch caterpillar is about as big as your shortest eyelash.
Anyone enjoy some sweet corn yet this year? Have a hamburger on a bun? Partake of a can of pop or other manufactured sweet? Chances are good, then, that you have consumed at least some (and probably a whole whopping lot of) genetically-modified organisms, or GMO’s. The vast majority of corn, soy, sugar beets, and cotton farmed here in the U.S. have been altered by science to withstand toxic chemical baths or unnaturally produce chemical inhibitors, all designed to minimize pests that may otherwise limit the gargantuan output of product that allows for luxuries like ¢.99 cheeseburgers. Never mind that the effect of eating these “Franken-foods” is not well-studied and that dozens of countries all over the world have banned them in fear of their possible health effects. The problem here is that the “pests” affected by GMO agriculture are the same plants and animals we depend on to keep our world running, those unsung heroes that pollinate, filter, feed, and cleanse the living cogs and wheels of our ecosystems. We are in fact creating a dead zone across America’s farmlands in which no other living thing can exist other that the crop being produced. And, all the corn in the world won’t help us should the delicate living connections that hold things together become impossibly broken and collapse.
Mmm... fries anyone? Forget the farm- it turns out that lots of the food we eat nowadays-like these potatoes- started out in a lab. Gross.
So what do GMO’s have to do with monarchs? One word: milkweed. Those species of plants belonging to the genus Asclepias are the only food that monarch caterpillars can eat. They simply cannot reproduce without it. For decades, milkweed has been an abundant, well, “weed” across the landscape, as ubiquitous to Americana farm fields as John Deere and amber waves of grain. But all that changed with the introduction of Roundup-ready GMO crops. This new army of mutant plants, bio-engineered to withstand repeated dousings of herbicide, now sprawls in endless acres of homogeneity. The milkweed and other native wildflowers, grasses, and sedges that once carved out a humble existence among the crops in agricultural fields are gone, gone, gone, and with them go the monarchs and countless other species of insects and other animals.
This monarch caterpillar can only eat one thing: milkweed. No milkweed = no monarchs.
The reality of our current agricultural system, its fragility, its short-sighted mentality, and the rampant effects it has on our living systems is nothing short of frightening, but believe me, you can change the world! Have you ever heard of The Butterfly Effect? In its simplest terms, this principle of chaos theory states that the smallest of actions- say the flap of a butterfly’s wings- may have a dramatic effect in far-off places or seemingly unconnected ways. I bring this up in order to illustrate that the choices you make in your life can and do make real change in the world around you. Plant milkweed in your yard- it’s beautiful and fragrant and sustains the most amazing microcosm of life you can imagine. Buy organic food, which is not allowed to contain GMO ingredients. When you shop, buy from farmer’s markets, which celebrate small, diversified, local farming instead of mega-production. Support legislation that demands products containing GMO’s be labeled as such, or better yet, ban them all together. Take a minute to call transportation departments, and ask that they leave more land along highways unmowed so milkweed and other plants can grow. Talk to your friends and families about these issues, as many folks out there simply don’t know the story behind their colas, cereals, and “value” meals.
Plant it and they will come: monarchs- and other species- will increasingly depend on our home landscapes for survival in the future. A little milkweed in your yard can make miracles.
What we need is nothing less than a cultural shift, a revolution of thought, and a willingness to be hopeful if either the monarchs or ourselves are to survive far into the future. This isn’t as scary, or as difficult as it sounds. Since the beginning of time, the guileless truths of nature have been whispering in our ear all we need to know: we’re all connected. That’s right, in more than just an obvious, physical way explained by food webs and the laws of supply and demand, all life is connected molecularly, electrically, and energetically. The respect and care- or not- that you show the world around you gets passed on and magnified. It’s an intrinsic reality, and as such is one that each and every one of you have the power to influence. Can you feel the urgency in my words? What is it that can make my passion for birds, butterflies, and life itself leap from the computer screen and, with any hope, into your own heart and mind? I feel it is this love, this fire, this drive to live intensely, purposefully, and with respect for all creatures that must be cultivated in us all, for us all. Well, that and a little milkweed. So, the next time you see a monarch flutter by, consider its journey and its purpose. Consider the plant it depends on, and also the animals that depend on this butterfly. Consider how your choice at lunch, and perhaps your willingness to speak up, can affect them all. And make a change.
A monarch chrysalis: a symbol of transformation. Let it inspire you to make changes in your life so that we may all live healthfully and happily in our marvelous, miraculous, living world.