By Brandon Butler
Across the country and here in Indiana, greater attention is being given to monarch butterflies and other pollinator species.
Monarchs in particular have seen a population collapse over the past 20 years, and public and private efforts will be needed to save this species.
According to Kelly Srigley-Werner with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “There were close to a billion monarch butterflies 20 years ago wintering on about 45 acres. In the winter of 2013-14 the population had declined to an estimated 33 million, occupying just 1.66 acres. The problems that are happening revolve around habitat loss and climatic issues affecting monarch wintering grounds in Mexico.”
Monarchs are a phenomenal species that bewilders scientists, who try to figure out the annual migration monarchs make from the Oyamel fir forests in central Mexico to Canada and back.
This journey is shared by four to five generations. Yet somehow, monarchs are imprinted to end the migration in the same tiny area where it began with their ancestors.
These butterflies, which will inhabit and breed on over a billion acres across North America throughout the year, all end up within a tiny 10-acre area in central Mexico. It’s hard to fathom.
Monarchs undergo complete metamorphosis. So like all moths and butterflies, they have four parts to their life cycle: egg, caterpillar, pupa and adult. The process takes about a month to complete.
All moth and butterfly species rely on a host plant that is chemically compatible with their species. For monarchs, only milkweeds can serve as a host. Once a female monarch mates with a male, she must find a milkweed to lay her eggs.
Caterpillars hatch usually within in a week. These caterpillars molt five times, shedding their skin and growing slightly larger each time. After the fifth molt, the caterpillar forms a chrysalis, in which it turns into a butterfly.
The butterfly, weighing about as much as two soybeans, forces itself out of the chrysalis and begins its leg of the journey.
Eastern blazing star, purple coneflower, showy goldenrod, smooth aster, wild bergamot and other native nectar plants are crucial. Unfortunately, we continue to see a decline in native wildflowers and milkweeds.
Habitat change is the greatest factor in the decline of the monarchs and all other pollinators. The agriculture community is aware that through modern farming practices, a lot of native habitat has been lost. They also understand both the intrinsic and aesthetic value of pollinators.
Agriculture has recognized they have a role to play, and the desired outcome for them is not just one needing to save a butterfly. They have a vested economic interest in ensuring that pollinators survive, because without pollinators many fruits and vegetables won’t grow.
Numerous programs exist to help private landowners with the expense of creating or restoring pollinator habitat on their land. One of the most well known is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), administered by the Farm Service Agency of U.S. Department of Agriculture. This program removes land from agriculture production in exchange for yearly rental payments.
Even if you don’t own a big chunk of land — heck, even if you live in an apartment — you can make a difference for monarchs. Just putting a couple of flower pots with milkweed and nectar plants on your porch may benefit one or more monarchs.
See you down the trail.
Brandon Butler’s outdoors columns appear Saturdays in the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.