The 2013-14 eastern monarch butterfly numbers are inconceivably awful. Horribly, terribly, awful. The population declined significantly beyond even last year’s dismal showing. Essentially, the eastern migratory population is collapsing.

This sucks.

The monarch butterfly is an iconic insect. It is the standard butterfly, frequently modeled for logos, costumes, and symbols. Children across the continent raise the caterpillars, and for many young people, monarchs are their first meaningful contact with arthropods. These insects are as culturally significant as they are ecologically. If something isn’t done soon and done big, the monarch migration will go the way of other animals with which it used to share the prairies- the herds of bison, the passenger pigeon.

I don’t have many photographs of monarchs. A few bland shots of larvae, a handful of adults on flowers. I never felt any urgency. They were as common as dirt. I just sort of assumed monarchs would always be around to photograph later.

Silly me.

15 thoughts on “Regrets”

  1. I’m glad I got to see the monarch reserves in Mexico four times since 2002. Tree boughs bending and snapping from the weight of huge hornet-nest sized clusters of monarchs. This month I doubt they could be spotted without binocs. From maybe a billion on some years to this. The scientists told us it was happening but like a speeding train, there was, and is, no stopping it. Thank you for caring, Alex Wild, and not being like some of the jerks that are lately saying ‘weh weh weh why do the monarchs get all of the attention?’ ARGH! Why don’t they start a Milkweed Bug Association if they want attention off the monarchs so badly. Monarchs are indeed a flagship species that sounds a louder alarm than the others that are quietly leaving us.

  2. It is extremely sad for me. Years ago I spearheaded a little local project with Girl Scouts selling swamp milkweed seeds for fundraising, and they ultimately educated themselves on the monarch-milkweed relationship. At the time it was an environmental education endeavor and at the time I took great pride in the project. The entomology guy I worked for years before that was flippant with regard to their being “common as dirt” but I knew almost anything can become endangered, and never took them for granted.

    Back in the late 1990s (probably that ’96-’97 spike on the graph) I personally got to witness a huge flock of monarchs flying high in the sky in September in Wisconsin. It made my heart soar. Never even knew they did that, and it’s now a nice memory for me personally, but unfortunately it doesn’t do a thing for the species.

    I don’t think there is any way that government would make any restrictions or policies simply for an insect, no matter how iconic it is. Not enough people are tapped into nature anymore, and the train is probably going too fast to stop it. I tried to explain the glyphosate/ethanol initiative effects to a friend but her only concern is getting over the border to Iowa to buy the cheaper, subsidized, higher-ethanol content gasoline. It was too complicated for her to understand compared to the incentive of buying cheap gas, and she is smart but not a nature person so does not care. Very typical of nearly everyone now, I would think. Sigh.

  3. I recall that in my youth I would see a monarch about every 10 seconds. Once I discovered a neighbors bush being used as an overnight roosting site for what must have been hundreds of the butterflies.
    So is the continued decline due to the surge in corn production, related to production of ethanol? Seems obvious but I thought to ask. Mayhaps Monsanto could help by planting fields of milkweed to cultivate monarchs. Would be a good public relations move.

    1. Mark, to answer your question, go to the link that Alex provided just below the graph.
      Also, Alex mentioned in previous monarch posts that we need to do more studies. In this case I would say there is no time for that. Your idea that Monsanto could help is a good one. I’d like to suggest that you and Alex and others with some science clout send that idea to some people who have the power and PR incentive to get it done.

  4. Monarch: One who reigns over a state or territory, usually for life. It’s not the full definition, but brings to mind your shared information. Thank you for care and your post, Alex Wild. Last year in our gardens, the monarchs did not come for their visits as in times past; and along the coast, again, no monarchs. I too, as a child learned so much about butterflies because of the monarchs. I will be in touch with our local extension office to learn more about what I can do to help this failing population.

  5. Can anyone here tell me how brush-hogging affects the milkweed population? I figure it would harm the perennials and favor grasses, but the guy from Soil & Water Conservation said a late summer/early fall brush-hogging would improve the meadow. Their focus seems to be on bird habitat, but I was thinking about insects hoping to overwinter in the tall plants.

    I’d been gathering milkweed buds to cook for dinner the past three summers. One of the caveats I’d read: “Beware of baby monarch caterpillars among the flowers!”
    The first summer I’d found one among the buds I picked. But only that one, the first summer, and none the following summers.

    Thank you for this sad reminder. I wonder if it is really feasible to raise monarchs in captivity to release into the wild?

    1. This is ugly but I can’t resist sharing. Googled “brush hogging milkweed” and the second website to come up was a blog on the Quality Deer Management Association website. Their slogan? “Ensuring the future of white-tailed deer, wildlife habitat & our hunting heritage”

      Oh boy. Saving those incredibly rare white-tailed deer.

    2. If your main goal is to not destroy monarchs, I would not brush hog until it frosts. Depends on where you live as to what time that would be. You don’t want to destroy your milkweed plants until the adults emerge from the pupae and fly away. SWConser. people are giving guidelines for other stuff such as bird habitat. My suggestion is do a little Wikipedia reading on common milkweed natural history. Then reason it out as to what you should do to prevent hurting any monarchs that would be growing on that milkweed plant in a given year.

      1. It’s 49 North, I believe frosts begin in October (I’m not a full-time resident yet)

        I feel very foolish now for agreeing with the S & W guidelines. It seems like over the past three summers the milkweed and goldenrod has declined (maybe about 30%?) and the grasses have increased. Seems like people hog in summer to destroy the milkweed, but maybe the fall hogging is more to prevent dense stands.

        Another interesting change: this summer is the first time I noticed filed ants tending aphids on the milkweed blossoms. I wonder if it’s simply something I didn’t notice before because there was more milkweed, or it’s simply a good year for those aphids.

  6. It would be useful to know how the Florida and California wintering populations are doing in comparison. I suspect that not all populations are crashing but don’t know the particulars.

    Middle America monarch problem solution requires changing the economic incentives:

    Food commodities have reached very high price levels indeed while Conservation Reserve reimbursement rates have been largely unchanged.

    Good luck !! Considering the current deficit, global stored food stocks, etc., not much chance of any change in the near future. There is always the chance that a combined economic and ecological collapse could wipe out western civilization and come the the monarchs rescue. Of course, not many of us would be around to notice more butterflies, nor would the survivors likely give a rat’s a$$.

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  8. The Monarch Butterfly is the state insect to Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, Texas, Vermont, and West Virginia. Are these states doing anything in particular to protect it or did it just look pretty?

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