A couple of years ago, my wife and I put some milkweed plants in the garden, mostly to see if we could attract monarch butterflies, which feed almost exclusively on milkweed. This year we saw not a single monarch caterpillar, not a single pair of orange-and-black butterfly wings.
Where I live in New England is well off the main highway of the great monarch migration. But the University of Northern Iowa is in the middle of the monarchs’ annual 2,500-mile trek. On a 100-acre prairie preserve, researchers counted 176 monarchs in 2010. This year, The New York Times reports, they counted 11.
The monarchs were especially missed in the mountain hollows of the Michoacan region of Mexico, where millions of them hibernate in winter. Mexicans await their arrival every year around Nov. 1, celebrated as the Day of the Dead. The air turns orange as they flow to their favorite trees. This year, though, the wave was barely a trickle.
There are multiple causes of the collapse of the North American monarch population: Illegal logging and the stress of a booming ecotourism industry in the Mexican wintering grounds; drought and heat waves in recent summers; the creation of pesticide-resistant crops and the increased use of pesticides it allows.
But the monarchs’ biggest problem is the disappearing milkweed, the plant on which female monarchs lay their eggs and the caterpillars feed.
Half of the monarchs on the migration route hatch in the Midwest, but the milkweed in the Midwest is disappearing, plowed into the ground to make room for more corn. There’s big money in corn, mostly because of the misguided federal ethanol program.
Congress mandated the addition of corn-based ethanol to gasoline to reduce dependence on foreign oil. It didn’t do much for America’s carbon footprint, but prices and production skyrocketed. The first unintended consequence was a global food shortage. The second has been the destruction of milkweed and other native vegetation in the country’s heartland, as every available square foot of soil was turned over to corn and soybean production.
Between 1999 and 2010, the Midwest lost 58 percent of its milkweed – and 81 percent of its monarch butterflies.
Monarchs are lovely creatures, their migration is impressive, and they pollinate as they flutter from flower to flower, but they aren’t an essential link in the food chain. Honeybees, on the other hand, are responsible for pollinating 80 percent of the nation’s flowering crop, from alfalfa to zucchini. But nearly a third of U.S. honeybee colonies have vanished, according to the National Resource Defense Council, killed by powerful new pesticides. Last June, 50,000 dead bees were found in an Oregon shopping center.
Insects do some of nature’s most important work; we wipe them out at our peril. “We notice the monarch and bees because they are iconic insects,” Douglas Tallamy, a professor of entomology at University of Delaware, told the Times. “But what do you think is happening to everything else?”
Page 2 of 2 - The monarch’s iconic status has one advantage: It has drawn public attention and mobilized grassroots action. Nonprofits and universities have stepped up research and support. New groups like Monarch Watch and Pollinator Partnership are distributing milkweed plants to volunteers to create butterfly oases in backyards and on public lands. They have convinced several states to stop mowing down native vegetation along highways. Environmental organizations are pushing the federal government to ban pesticides that are wiping out honey bees.
Nature is wonderfully resilient, once humans retreat from disastrous policies. The Endangered Species Act, signed 40 years ago last month, saved the bald eagle, the gray wolf, the American alligator and hundreds of other species from extinction.
The monarch has already recovered from an earlier human-made disaster. A wet spell and a spike in wheat prices in the 1920s inspired Midwestern farmers to tear up millions of acres of the prairie grasses that held the Great Plains together. When the prices fell and drought hit in the ‘30s, the land just blew away. In 1934, a storm blew Oklahoma topsoil as far as Washington, D.C.
Franklin Roosevelt’s policies helped reverse that curse, encouraging the return of native vegetation to hold the soil and the planting of rows of trees to break the winds. The Great Plains came back, providing food for the world – and for the monarch butterflies.
Let’s do it again. Plant some milkweed: You may save more than a few pretty butterflies.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @HolmesAndCo.