Monarch Butterfly Conservation

Monarch butterflies are some of the most beloved insects in the world and are proudly held up as the state insect or butterfly of seven different American states. Their beautiful orange and black coloration and the magnificent migration they perform annually factor into their appeal. Unfortunately, the migratory populations of monarchs have recently been added to the “red list” of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. While this alarm bell is important to notify the world of the struggles these insects face, it is not accompanied by regulatory or legal changes. With this news comes questions, such as: what has happened to monarchs and are there actions we can take to help correct the course of these insect’s populations?

Figure 1: Monarch butterflies are renowned for their beauty and migratory abilities. They have become a posterchild for insect conservation efforts in the United States (Photo: Jonathan L. Larson, University of Kentucky).

Monarch Decline

Populations of overwintering monarchs in Mexico have been lower in recent years relative to numbers from the 1990s. There is also a lot of debate about the groups of monarchs that migrate through the United States and Canada. There is evidence that in some areas of the U.S., monarch populations have bounced up. Some researchers contend though that in the central U.S., in the so called “Corn Belt”, we have not seen the recovery other areas have.

As for what drives each of these issues, the answer is of course complicated. Overwintering populations of monarchs are threatened by logging that occurs near their specific host site, the oyamel fir forests north of Mexico City. There are also negative effects associated with climate change that may be harming these insects while they stay in Mexico. Over successive generations, as they migrate north in the U.S., monarchs need to be able to find milkweed to lay their eggs on. Unfortunately, milkweed is not as common as it once was. This is because of expanded urbanization changing habitats across the country and is also attributed to the advent of glyphosate use in agricultural settings. With widespread herbicide use helping to get rid of weeds in fields and improve yields, we also lost a lot of the wild milkweed monarchs depend on. These are complicated issues tied to the way we use the land around us and the need for us to maximize agriculture to feed the world. None of these issues exist on their own and they must be confronted as a whole if we are to help monarchs.

Figure 2: Data courtesy of the World Wildlife Fund shows the results of their annual survey of overwintering monarchs in Mexico. Populations of these insects successfully overwintering has declined since the 90s.

Can We Help?

Some of these issues are larger than what an individual Kentuckian can handle. If you are passionate about monarchs, joining groups like the Xerces Society or Monarch Watch can help to contribute to large scale change or allow you to contribute citizen science data. You can also work to inform your legislators about what they can do to help ailing monarch populations.

Figure 3: Creating space for milkweed in your landscape and your community can help to introduce more plants for monarchs to lay their eggs on (Photo: Jonathan L. Larson, UK).

On your own, you can convert parts of your landscape to monarch conservation habitats or try to lobby that public land in your community be used for monarch habitat. This would need to be more substantial than just one plant in the garden (though every bit helps!) and would need to be in an area where insecticides weren’t likely to get on the plants.

Research done at the University of Kentucky came up with a nice guide on producing a “better monarch waystation” and you can find it at this link (scroll down to page 2 of the pdf).

Beyond milkweed for larval development, adding more flowering plants to the landscape can also provide nectar for hungry adults.

By Jonathan L. Larson, Entomology Extension Specialist

Posted in Beneficial Insects
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