The Plight of the Monarch Butterfly
Monarch butterflies are a subject of increasing interest, not only for their beauty but sadly, for their state. This species has experienced tremendous population impact over the last several decades, and in order to make a difference, we must learn more about them. Here are a few highlights of what I discovered in my research.
About the Monarch Butterfly
“The female monarch butterfly lays each of her eggs individually on the leaf of a milkweed plant, attaching it with a bit of glue she secretes. After a few days, the eggs hatch into larvae, otherwise known as caterpillars in the moth and butterfly world. The caterpillars’ main job is to grow, so they spend most of their time eating. They only eat milkweed, which is why the female laid her eggs on milkweed leaves in the first place.
The caterpillars eat their fill for about two weeks, and then they spin protective cases around themselves to enter the pupa stage, which is also called “chrysalis.” About a week or two later, they finish their metamorphosis and emerge as fully formed, black-and-orange, adult monarch butterflies.
Monarchs’ colorful pattern makes them easy to identify—and that’s the idea. The distinctive colors warn predators that they’re foul-tasting and poisonous. The poison comes from their diet. Milkweed itself is toxic, but monarchs have evolved not only to tolerate it, but to use it to their advantage by storing the toxins in their bodies and making themselves poisonous to predators, such as birds.” (National Geographic)
From the US Fish & Wildlife Service:
“Two long-distance migratory monarch populations occur in North America; the largest is east of the continental divide and overwinters in the mountains of central Mexico. Monarchs west of the continental divide overwinter primarily along coastal California. Monarchs also inhabit about 90 other countries, islands or island groups around the world, but these monarchs are believed to have originated from the North American population.”
Their wintering habitat typically provides access to streams, plenty of sunlight (enabling body temperatures that allow flight, about 50 degrees), and appropriate roosting vegetation, and is relatively free of predators.
Here is an incredible video from PBS with some truly stunning footage of these creatures. Check it out:
(If you want to observe these creatures up close, you can purchase a Monarch Butterfly Rearing Kit to watch the lifecycle from caterpillar to release. This is a great learning (and teaching) opportunity for kids as well as adults!)
Monarch Butterfly Status
In 40 years, America’s eastern population of monarchs, which flock to Mexico each winter, has seen its numbers drop by about 80 percent…Western monarchs, which overwinter in California, have lost closer to 99 percent of their population. (That’s from the Smithsonian.)
It is not technically classified as endangered by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, but not because the status is unwarranted — only because other species are more endangered. That is a sad problem to be witnessing.
The benefit of being “formally” listed as endangered is mostly about funding — while federal and state conservation programs do exist, they have the chance to become turbo-charged when the species becomes officially endangered. For now, the US Government is focusing on the frogs, salamanders, and birds that also deserve our attention. (But that’s for another day.)
The three primary causes of the monarch butterfly’s decline are habitat loss, climate change, and exposure to pesticides. This is just one of the many reasons why we take eco-friendly pest control so seriously at Universal. It is not only a company value but a personal one as well — although it is rarely pesticides used in residential pest control that are the problem, but rather the heavy impact of commercial agribusiness. (I do believe that every little effort makes a difference, though, even if small.)
What You Can Do to Help the Monarch Butterfly
Here’s some great news: milkweed, the plant so critical to this butterfly’s survival, grows well in Florida! In addition to providing critical support, the garden varieties of this plant are also beautiful. How’s that for a win-win?
From the University of Florida:
“The Sunshine State is home to more than twenty species of milkweed, almost all of which are native. A couple of these species, in fact, are endemic, meaning they’re found only in our state. Two milkweed species are commonly offered for sale as “butterfly garden plants.” The first is Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, which sports attractive, bright blooms and is very hardy. (Pictured left)
In many nurseries, the most readily available species of milkweed is a popular but non-native one. Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is a showstopper. It produces bunches of orange, yellow, and red tubular blooms for months. Sometimes it is labeled “butterfly weed” or simply “milkweed.” Check the label for the scientific name to avoid confusing this plant with a native milkweed species.
Most milkweeds prefer full sun. They tolerate a wide variety of soil conditions, from clay to sand. Milkweeds generally grow quickly, reaching a final height of one to four feet tall, depending on the species.”
Read the full article here for a complete list of all the milkweed species in Florida. (Just make sure to keep kids and pets away. The sap produced by milkweed — that gives it its name — is toxic if consumed in very large quantities.)
With spring nearly here, please consider including milkweed in this season’s garden planting. In combination with practicing responsible pest control, providing a food source for this insect is the single biggest impact you can have. If gardening is not in the cards for you, consider donating to the Xerces Society. This is a science-backed group working to preserve the biodiversity of several different invertebrates, including the monarch butterfly.
I hope you’ll join me in taking small steps to preserve one of nature’s most beautiful species. It will take collective effort at an individual level, a business level, and a government level to stop this troubling trend.
Todd Stebleton is the owner and operator of Universal Pest Control, a family-owned business for over 25 years in Ormond Beach, Florida. He and his wife Natalie are proud to have built a company that is focused on conducting business with honesty and integrity, keeping customers first.