Monarch butterfly populations are endangered. Habitat destruction, insecticides and herbicides have all contributed to their steep decline in the last few decades. Losing Monarchs wouldn’t simply be tragic because of their beauty. The disruption it would cause in an ecosystem that depends on their existence that would signal something awful for the fate of the natural world.
Without getting too heavy into specifics, caterpillars are a critical food source for most songbirds, which rely heavily on insects to feed their young. Butterflies, like bees, are also important pollinators. They help plants produce seeds, which also feed birds and other wildlife and, of course, help the plant reproduce. Somewhat famously, Monarch butterflies from the United States make a journey South to Mexico each winter. According to Mexico’s National Commission of Protected Natural Areas and World Wildlife Fund, the area covered by Monarchs in Mexico has decreased by more than a quarter compared with last season. That’s a 25% reduction in just one year. But these numbers are mainly coming from Eastern U.S. populations of the insect. On the West Coast, the situation has become even more dire. According to a piece published in The San Diego Union-Tribune, “Western Monarch numbers have been steadily dropping for decades, from 1.2 million in 1997 to 30,000 in 2019, but the most recent results…are staggering-just 1,914 butterflies total, down from the millions that used to migrate from the Pacific Northwest and Central California to overwinter along the coast form Mendocino in Northern California to Ensenada in Baja, California.” In fact, monarch populations have plummeted so significantly in recent years, they now belong on the endangered species list. However, the list is only afforded a certain number of species at a time, and in order to allow another a spot (and funds) to be awarded to a new species, one must first be removed to free up a spot.
Fortunately, there are some individual efforts we can make to help strengthen Monarch butterfly populations in the hopes that they never officially make it on the endangered species list.
- Get rid of the (nonnative) tropical milkweed plant in your garden and replace it with a native milkweed plant.
Monarch caterpillars only eat one plant-milkweed-and many Californians have planted tropical milkweed with the intent to help. However, the nonnative tropical milkweed plant doesn’t die back during the winter in temperate climates like Southern California’s, permitting certain types of parasites to multiply on the plants, which are then eaten by caterpillars when they hatch. When the caterpillars consume too many of these parasites, scientists believe it “sickens and weakens adult monarchs, affecting their migration patterns, migration success, fight ability and lifespan.”
Some nurseries have adopted “milkweed exchange” programs when native milkweed becomes available in the spring (they will take your tropical milkweed plant and give you a native milkweed plant). If you are unable or unwilling to remove or replace your tropical milkweed plant, “cut it down to the ground around Thanksgiving and keep it trimmed low until April to kill any overwintering parasites,” according to Travis Longcore, urban ecologist and science director for the Urban Wildlands Group.
- Keep your garden organic (specifically your milkweed plants).
Pesticides (especially the ones designed to get rid of aphids) are toxic to any caterpillars and butterflies that come into contact with them. Specifically, if you decide to plant milkweed, make sure that it is organic and hasn’t been sprayed with any harmful pesticides before introducing it into your garden. Milkweed used to grow wild in agricultural areas or alongside roads, but the use of herbicides to kill weeds has destroyed much of the monarch’s food source. Not only that, but it’s also wiped out beneficial weeds that support pollinators. “The best action is to avoid using these chemicals in our yards and to lobby our representatives and government agencies to phase our their use because they are devastating the beneficial insects that pollinate our food.”
- Lobby your local nursery or garden center.
If enough people ask for native milkweed plants (and seeds) and stop buying the tropical variety, nurseries will be forced to make a change.
- Plant lots of nectar flowers.
Adult monarchs survive on a diet of nectar from a variety of flowers. “There are many drought-tolerant natives attractive to many butterflies, such as black sage, bluedicks, sunflowers, seaside fleabane and the dainty fairy-cap flowers of manzanita.” Native buckwheats have flowers that support a number of pollinators. And if you don’t have a yard, you can plant these in flowerboxes as well!
- Eat and drink organic!
By choosing to eat and drink organic foods and beverages, you are increasing demand for products that have been made without chemical pesticides and herbicides that are harmful to the environment and that decimate ecosystems. You can visit our online store to shop our selection of wines made entirely organically.
You can learn more about pesticide use here:
Greene, D. (2021, Mar 8). Monarch butterfly population down so it’s not too early to plan your urban monarch garden, local researchers say. Chicago Tribune. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/environment/ct-monarchs-population-low-urban-garden-20210308-3czpokwkqjh3tjqwxdlpw5jtje-story.html
Marantos, J. (2021, Mar 6). 6 ways Californians can help save the iconic monarch butterfly. The San Diego Union-Tribune. https://www.latimes.com/lifestyle/story/2021-02-23/help-monarch-butterflies-more-milkweed-less-pesticides