The Plight of the Monarchs (3)

Growing up in rural West Virginia I never gave butterflies much thought as they flittered across the landscape. Discovering a Monarch chrysalis was always a big deal. Milkweed, the primary food source of the Monarchs, grew unfettered along the road sides and creek banks. I’m certain if I could travel back through time to search I could locate many Monarch caterpillars along Angel Fork and its unnamed tributaries. I recently purchased a butterfly net for my bug-crazy granddaughter, Fern, and suddenly I am very concerned about butterflies. Or the lack there of. North Carolina is a beautifully green state with nature around every corner. Where have the butterflies gone? Why is a butterfly’s visit to the garden a moment that demands a pause in other activities while we marvel?

The Plight of the Monarchs (1)

Monarch butterflies are in serious decline and advocates for the winged marvel share concerns that the species may be listed as endangered in the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s next update scheduled for June 2019. We cannot afford the loss of this dedicated pollinator.

Biologist Emma Pelton who oversees the annual monarch census in the western United States for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation tags the 2018 Monarch count as “potentially catastrophic.” The 2018 population reflected an estimated 86 percent decline from the previous year.[1] Combined with a 97 percent decline in the previous two decades the Monarch’s very survival is threatened. identifies loss of habitat in the summer breeding grounds as one factor that could be contributing to the decline. The site reports a loss of 6,000 acres of potential monarch/pollinator habitat a day in the United States due to development (2.2 million acres per year). The losses of habitat due the adoption of glyphosate tolerant corn and soybeans in the last 10 years amount to at least 100 million acres. The conversion of 7 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land to crops for the production of biofuels adds to the total. “In all, we estimate the loss of habitat to be 147 million acres since Monarch Watch was started in 1992 – an area 4 times the state of Illinois.”[2]

The Plight of the Monarchs (2)

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CNN, in a May 2018 article, Why Monsanto and its rivals are trying to save butterflies, reports that agricultural chemical giants BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta have become interested in the plight of the Monarchs. Through educational programs and focused conservation effort the companies hope to bolster the butterfly numbers before the insect makes the endangered species list. The article reports:

“Over the past two decades, the population of Monarch butterflies has fallen by 90%, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Scientists think that a number of factors, including climate change, urban development and plant disease, contributed to the decline.

But experts think that one major cause is the decimation of milkweed, the only plant on which Monarch butterflies lay eggs.

In 1996, Monsanto launched a game-changing product: Soybeans that could survive Monsanto’s glysophate-based Roundup herbicide. Farmers who planted Roundup Ready soybeans — and later cotton, corn and other crops — could spray Roundup indiscriminately, knowing that the herbicide would kill weeds but not crops. Because of that, Milkweed stopped growing between rows of crops, shrinking Monarchs’ habitat.

Between 1997 and 2014, the percentage of domestic soybean acres planted with herbicide-tolerant seeds ballooned from 17% to 94%, according to the Department of Agriculture. In that same period, herbicide-resistant cotton went from 10% to 91% of US cotton acres. For herbicide-tolerant corn, that figure grew from 4.3% to 89% in the same period.” [3]

There is hope for the Monarchs. Landowners and gardeners at all levels of property ownership are stepping up to create habitats to support Monarch reproduction. Milkweed has become part of the planning and planting of many small gardens as well as larger public tracts of land.

Tony Gomez, proprietor at, writes in a January 2019 article, 5 Ways to Make 2019 Your Best Monarch Season…Ever:

“The power of our community (magnified by social media) has brought monarchs to the forefront of wildlife conservation, and more people are taking an active role in supporting monarchs through gardening, raising butterflies, and getting involved with organizations that support monarch conservation.”[4]

Will granddaughter Fern experience the joy of watching Monarch caterpillars munch their way up a milkweed plant? Will she dance with glee when she locates a treasured chrysalis? And will she hold her breath in wonder as a new butterfly emerges and takes flight?

She will if I have anything to say about it.

[1], accessed 1/13/19

[2], accessed 1/13/19

[3], accessed 1/13/19

[4], accessed 1/13/19