Orange and Black Beauties

My daughter was riding the other day, strolling on her horse through a field of thick alfalfa, when suddenly, she was swarmed by an orange horde of Monarch butterflies. The experience left her giddy and curious, and left me envious.

The farm she was riding on is owned by a farmer who often leaves a portion of the hay ground unharvested in August to provide fuel for the Monarchs as they ready for their long migratory flight south, a staggering 4,000 kilometres from a field of alfalfa to central Mexico. World Wildlife Fund Canada reports that the Monarch’s journey is “one of the world’s longest insect migrations”. They use rising columns of warm air to rest their wings during the migratory flight. I am fascinated by these orange beauties and their adaptive spirits. In summer the adult Monarch lives a brief life from two to six weeks, yet the Monarchs journeying to Mexico are a single generation, spanning the time required to migrate and to find their place to hibernate, often up to nine months. On the reverse trip, four generations of Monarchs are required to make their way to summer habitats. Further, these Monarchs are flying to a place they have never been, and I am left wondering how exactly they are able to navigate. Hinterland Who’s Who tells us the Monarch has been seen by glider pilots at elevations of more than 1000 metres.

This important pollinator is endangered and has been under threat for some time. The Monarch has become the international symbol of conservation and nature. Its welfare is threatened by the decline in milkweed due to pesticide use. Milkweed plants are the only food source during the larvae and caterpillar stage. “Most Monarchs live in only a few hectares of the Oyamel Fir forests in Central Mexico,” during the winter, areas that are vulnerable to agriculture, logging, and fire. These forests are shrinking. The Monarchs blanket these forested mountain slopes in Mexico, and the beautiful spectacle is “a unique phenomenon produced nowhere else on Earth”. We can address this threat of climate change with relative ease and success by adjusting our garden choices. Gardeners are planting milkweed to support the Monarchs during its reproductive phases. The common milkweed and butterfly milkweed grow well in drained soil. The swamp milkweed is better suited to damper conditions. Monarchs can seek out even the smallest patches of milkweed no matter where the plant grows, even in highly populated cities. Adding late blooming native plants to your garden such as pale purple coneflower, black-eyed susan, asters, and goldenrod provides food sources for the butterflies as they ready for migration. Alfalfa hay ground left to bloom also serves as a great food source as evidenced by my daughter’s experience.

I remember as a child being surrounded by Monarch butterflies. They were a common sight and plentiful. I can’t remember the last time I saw one. The David Suzuki Foundation reported in 2015 that “Monarch butterfly populations have dropped by over 95% in the past two decades.” A US Fish and Wildlife Service reported in the same year that “970 million Monarch butterflies have vanished in recent years”. PBS NewsHour reported on July 30, 2022, that the Monarch has been “officially designated as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature”. Scott Hoffman Black of Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation spoke to PBS and explained the decline is caused by “lots of lawns and lots of pesticide use.” The Monarch has been on the decline since the 1980s. Black went on to say we can care for the Monarch by reducing pesticide use and increasing habitat, and in doing so we are helping the recovery of other insects, especially bees, and other butterflies. The Monarch is a magnificence to behold, and its restored numbers will be a flag waving to cheer us on. We can all help.