The hushed fluttering of millions of monarch butterfly wings is in danger of being silenced.
The bright orange and black monarchs are involved in one of the most amazing migrations in nature, flying up to 1,500 miles to a handful of wintering sites in Mexico in the late summer and early fall. They return in spring to lay their eggs for the next generation before dying.
As many as 100 million butterflies are estimated to make the trek, flying 20 to 30 miles a day for two to 2½ months, according to Monarch Watch. Monarch Watch was established in 1992 at the University of Kansas and is involved in research, education and conservation efforts about monarchs.
In a recent blog post, Monarch Watch Director Chip Taylor said, “Monarchs and their amazing annual migration are seriously threatened by human activities in both their summer and wintering sites. Many of these threatening activities hinge on the destruction of good monarch habitats.”
As with most wildlife, development and agricultural expansion are eradicating normal monarch habitats, and they also are threatened by the use of insecticides and herbicides. The biggest threat is the destruction of milkweed plants. Considered a noxious weed by many, it is where monarchs lay their eggs, and its the second meal for the larva after they eat their eggshell.
Environmental activist Lee Botts, of Gary, said that in past years she could walk along U.S. 12 between Lake Street and County Line Road and clouds of monarchs would be stirred up from the milkweed plants growing next to the road. The Indiana Department of Transportation mowed the weeds and the butterflies are gone, she said.
In Mexico, the monarchs cluster on the oyamel trees, which are valuable lumber sources for the locals. Logging removes the trees as well as opening the canopy that provides protection against rain and snow that can kill the butterflies, Taylor said in his blog. While tourists are attracted to the butterflies, it is not nearly as lucrative for the locals as the lumber.
The migration faced an additional threat this year because the route for the eastern monarchs takes them over Texas, where drought and wildfires have destroyed the plants that provide the butterflies with the nectar they need to continue their journey. The estimates of the number of migrating monarchs already was considerably lower than in past years without the increased difficulties, Taylor said.
Monarch Watch is trying to combat the loss of habitat by urging people to set up monarch way stations in their yards, in parks and at schools. So far almost 5,000 way stations have been set up around the country, ranging from a couple of hundred square feet to several acres.
“We are supposed to be stewards of the planet, and, if we lose this one, it will be a black mark,” Taylor said. “Everything is connected to something and provides resources for something else. The monarch larva and eggs are eaten by everything out there. Some of these are predators on other insects we don’t want around.
“Saving the monarch also saves a lot of pollinators. If we don’t do that, the system becomes less complex and more unstable. Complexity means stability, and we want to keep everything together as best as we can, and we are not doing a very good job of that.
“There is no need for us to diminish the fabric of life because the fabric supports us,” he said. “We don’t know when we pull a part out of the wall if the whole wall will fall down. We don’t really know how things are connected, so we have to have a precautionary principle.”
Besides, he added, “The monarch migration is one of the most spectacular phenomena on the planet.”