“Hey, look!” I exclaimed as a man rolled down a window of the truck he drove into our yard this morning. I think my hand was shaking as I pointed at a flower bed. “Over there! It’s our first monarch butterfly of the year. They’re rare now.”
A large butterfly fluttered around for a food plant. Its wings looked like a hinged pair of stained glass windows made of amber inside cames of black lead. They dazzled me. And then I pondered the mystery of generations that make the long migration possible and the thousands of miles for the return journey in September. They astounded me.
“Where’s your broken pane?” the man asked. “You still want it fixed?” I guess he thought I was wasting time on a stupid butterfly. It’s harder to convert someone to care for nature when there’s business to be done.
Neighbors told us that monarchs were common twenty years ago, but now we only catch sight of them a dozen times in a whole summer. The numbers are down by 90% in Virginia as well as elsewhere. Perhaps you have to live long enough to notice a difference, and that’s why it’s important to help children to care.
The fading of monarchs from the landscape has prompted lots of speculation. Is it climate change, or logging in their mountain fastness where they overwinter in Mexico, or pesticide exposure during their peregrinations, or food shortages as they traverse swathes of monoculture crops? Perhaps a little of all of them, but entomologists think the disappearance of the food plant for their caterpillars is the main reason. They only eat certain types of milkweed.
Milkweed species used to be ubiquitous, but intensive farming and mowing of fields and highway verges is stripping them across their range. Part of the problem is that we are less tolerant of “wastelands” and “weeds.” A little more “untidiness” might help them and the critters depending on them. Any creature like a monarch that depends on a single food source is more vulnerable than a less fussy eater.
It made evolutionary sense when the first monarchs laid eggs on milkweed. The plant is named for its milky sap which contains alkaloids that Native Americans used as folk remedies, and the scientific name for the genus is taken from the Greek god of healing (Asclepias). Since the alkaloids are distasteful to most birds, the caterpillars and the adult butterflies had an advantage, and prospered as long as milkweed was abundant.
There is a silver lining to this gloomy story. While agriculture and urban development are squeezing out milkweed, countless people across the country are running to save it.
The Internet is full of appeals by milkweed activists and ads from seed merchants. Some vendors even offer free milkweed seeds, bless their hearts. The US Fish and Wildlife Service are sufficiently concerned that grants are offered to help save the butterfly. And in our own county master naturalists are planting it in school gardens or rearing butterflies indoors or tagging them so researchers tracing their migration can discover the most vulnerable stages of their migration.
Even tiny efforts can feel worthwhile when they are part of a larger endeavor. I bought swamp milkweed seeds in March. After germinating in trays of potting soil I planted them out, and they are now over a foot tall in damp corners around the yard. Perhaps the colorful visitor I had today has already found them and laid its eggs under the leaves. And maybe in a couple of weeks they will grow into a bunch of fat caterpillars with black, yellow and white stripes like pajamas. Of all the critters that feast on our vegetation, they are most welcome.
Butterflies are wonderful ambassadors for nature, and monarchs are as fine symbols for conservation as giant pandas. I never heard anyone say they disliked them, except perhaps a gardener moaning about cabbage white butterflies on his brassicas. Butterflies are almost entirely harmless, and exquisitely beautiful. You can even make a friend of one if you hold out a finger very gently to offer salt in your pores.
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