For many of us, the word butterfly conjures up the image of a Monarch, so appropriately named as it soars, kite-like, into our view, a sublime contradiction of fragility and strength. Those tissue-paper wings can make a journey that most of us couldn't — those wings will sail thousands of miles to an ancestral overwintering site in Mexico, in the high altitudes among the oyamil firs. The Mexican people welcome the butterflies home and, for them, the Monarchs embody the souls of their loved ones. It's no wonder the Monarch garners so much admiration and, well, love.
Their annual migration is one of the biological wonders of the world. How do these tiny creatures know just exactly where to go? How do they know how to find each other? How does a butterfly that came from Indiana know how to find a fir tree being occupied by a butterfly that came from Massachusetts?
Definitive answers to these questions and others are in peril, just as the butterfly's migratory pattern is. This year so far, scientists have counted only 3 million overwintering butterflies. To put that number in perspective, last year there were only 60 million, which also had Monarch experts worried.
Monarchs are the nexus of so much human activity; their numbers have been declining because of illegal logging in their winter home in Mexico though, according to Monarch Watch (an organization devoted to studying the butterfly and encouraging citizen scientists), Mexico has been doing an effective job of protecting the Monarch's habitat.
The U.S. also needs to do more, judging by the numbers that came from North America. These butterflies need milkweed to reproduce; it is the only food that the caterpillars will eat. The Corn Belt, which covers a major thoroughfare for the Monarchs returning north in the spring, is no longer a hospitable place for them (not to mention other pollinators) because of the herbicide-tolerant GMO crops. The heavy application of herbicides like Roundup kills the milkweed that Monarchs need to reproduce.
During their fall migration, there are too few and far between fall nectar plants, like native asters, goldenrods, and bonesets because those also have been removed by herbicides.
As a nation, we need to do more to ensure that the migration will continue. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has listed the Monarch migratory phenomenon as threatened. Individually, our yards and public spaces can help conserve the Monarch butterfly. It really is not so difficult.
What would it be like if the Monarchs didn't come any longer? It would be a sign that things will not be okay for us in the long run. But in the short run, life would be poorer; these little creatures always lift my spirits, and I am always glad to see these little miracles that remind me I live on a miracle called Earth.
Stephanie Walquist is a Lifelong Monarch lover, longtime butterfly gardener, founding member and vice-president of West Cook Wild Ones
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