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Monarch Royalty: The Blight Affecting a Butterfly

The Monarch Butterflies You See Above Are in the Middle of a Long Journey.

For centuries, these beautiful, majestic creatures have captured the hearts and imagination of poets, writers, adults and children alike. Who among us hasn’t observed the Monarch’s grace as it soars through the air? It’s fair to say that in one way or another, we’d be wont to find someone to whom the Monarch Butterfly hasn’t brought joy. They are symbols of hope, renewal, and the rebirth of spring. What child hasn’t cheerfully chased after them on a warm spring day, laughing all the while, trying to catch it as it lands to pollinate. Something past generations have taken for granted.

Aztecs believed the souls of the departed returned as Monarch Butterflies; a myth that spans centuries and is predicated on the following incredible fact that baffles scientists to this day. Somehow, over the course of several life-cycles and many months, the Monarch’s annual multi-generational migration from Canada to Mexico ends each year in the same few acres of the Oyamel fir forests in central Mexico. Their arrival happens to coincide with their Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead. An amazing truth, and why the Aztecs considered their myth as a reasonable method for explaining this phenomenon.

Most monarchs live only a few weeks, but the generation that emerges in late summer and early fall is different. This generation is born to travel, and may live for eight or nine months to accomplish their lengthy migration. Scientists think they use the position of the sun and the changing weather to time their long journey. In the fall, much of the traveling population will touch down along a four-hundred-mile-wide corridor along the Monarch’s more than 2,000-mile journey to central Mexico.

Monarch Butterflies inhabit and breed on more than a billion acres across North America throughout the year!

Sadly, the Monarch Butterflies and the joy they bring us, not to mention their practical benefits, may one day be relegated to distant memories, stories passed down to future generations; pictures found in encyclopedias and iPads if we don’t make changes. Indeed, future generations may view the Monarch Butterfly as a myth not all that dissimilar from those of the Aztecs.

“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” - Maya Angelou

The Monarch Butterfly is in Trouble!

Just like every other organism, plant, insect or animal on the planet, monarchs play a crucial role in the survival of our ecosystem. Butterflies (just like bees, which are also in grave danger) help pollinate plants, making them a vital contributor to crop growth and food production. They also serve as a food source to birds and other animals.

Monarch Butterflies have substantially dropped off over the past few decades – a devastating 96.5 percent to be exact.


*In 1980, the monarch butterfly population was about 4.5 million. By the mid-2000's, that number dropped to less than 100,000 and in 2018 there were less than 28,500. Think about that for a minute. In the span of 30 years, the Monarch population has dropped by 99%.

Some of the Problem:

  • Scientists attribute a variety of factors to the steep decline of the Monarch over the past few decades. Among those are logging, urbanization, pesticide and herbicide use, as well as the destruction of milkweed along the Monarch’s migration route. The rash of devastating wild fires in California over the past few years has contributed greatly to the steep and sudden decline. The common thread? Humans.

  • Milkweed is essential to the monarch’s survival, and every little bit helps. Plant native milkweed and other wildflowers that will help attract butterflies to your garden. If you don’t have a garden, try reaching out to friends, family, schools and community gardens to see if they will designate an area of their garden to butterfly-friendly plants.

  • Ditch the pesticides in your yard, and choose to purchase organic and non-GMO products as often as possible.

  • Be a conscious consumer and help prevent deforestation by avoiding the purchase of wood and paper products unless they’re certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

The Importance of the Milkweed Plant

Female monarchs lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves. As the caterpillar hatches, it subsists on a diet of milkweed leaves. The milkweeds’ toxins remain permanently in the monarch’s system, even after the caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly. The milkweed toxins protect the Monarch Butterfly (in fact, its bright orange color warns predators not to eat it). Animals that eat a Monarch become very sick and, thereafter, will avoid this distinctively patterned butterfly. Monarch Butterflies need milkweed to survive! Milkweed is found mainly in prairies, meadows, grasslands and along roadsides, across most of North America. The adult butterfly drinks nectar from a variety of flowers (including of course, milkweed), uncoiling and extending its long proboscis to sip food. When not in use, this flexible “tongue” coils back into a spiral.

Some Solutions:

Plant Milkweed Adult Monarchs will only lay eggs on milkweed because that is the only plant caterpillars will eat. There are over 100 species of milkweed, Jefferson Landscape and Design can help you choose something for your landscape plan!

Grow Nectar Plants There are several opportunities here. Again, we can help you choose something helpful. Please also see out Butterfly Blog. Monarchs need energy for their long journey.

Create a Sanctuary You’ll want to create a place for the Monarchs to drink and recharge. A few shallow, moist divots in the soil will provide the water and additional minerals they need. Water Features are also helpful. The Monarchs, like most Californians, love the sun and warmth. Boulders used in creating ponds and waterfalls heat up in the morning and afternoon sun, inviting the weary travelers to rest and soak up some rays. Butterflies cannot fly when they are cold!

These are just a few simple things you can do to help the conservation of a creature on the verge of extinction. Visit the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Resources or if you can always phone your Congressperson or State Assembly Representative’s office to find out about more programs and resources. Get involved. Go to Google! If you are a teacher, consider creating this type of habitat at your school or outside of your classroom. Consider certifying your backyard as a Wildlife Habitat or Jefferson Landscape and Design’s Ponds4Kids! Program. If you are a parent, consider dedicating a corner of your yard to butterflies and invite your children to help. This is a great way to teach the life cycle of butterflies, and inspire the next generation of conservationists, writers, poets, and dreamers.

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