Monarch Butterfly – A Kingdom in Decline

Monarch butterfly resting on a flower

The monarch butterfly, this iconic king among insects weighs less than half a gram and can fit in the palm of your hand; with its glowing, red-orange wings, it’s like holding a tiny slice of sunset. The monarch’s scientific name literally means “sleepy transformation,” a testament to their ability to hibernate and metamorphosize. 15 In fact, monarchs embark on one of the most complex migration patterns of any insect, navigating their way to warmer weathers thanks to a light-sensitive “sun compass” embedded in their antennae. 16

The adult monarch butterfly lives only a short four to five weeks, but the generation born in late summer delays sexual maturity to embark on an autumnal migration of over 2,000 miles, traveling from Canada and the United States to their overwintering destinations in sunny California and Mexico. In Mexico, the butterflies roost in oyamel fir forests, clustering together, with tens of thousands of butterflies sheltering on a single tree. Monterey pines and cypresses are the preferred real-estate of butterflies in California. 17

Steven Reppert, a retired neurobiologist at the University of Massachusetts, says the great migration is “a remarkable piece of biology that we need to understand and preserve. 18” Indeed, preservation is an incredibly urgent matter for the monarch butterflies as numbers have dropped dramatically in both the Mexico and California overwintering populations.

Monarch butterfly resting on a flowerThe Mexico population has dropped 80% from the 1990s, and in 2020 the population dropped 53% from the numbers recorded in 2019. In California, the 2019 butterfly census tallied a total of 29,000 monarch butterflies, a massive departure from the 1.2 million of decades past. 19 The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has said the monarch’s decline warrants placement under the Endangered Species Act, but the butterfly is currently on the waiting list, as other endangered species have been given higher priority. 20

Two separate factors, combined, have created the “perfect storm” responsible for the monarch’s diminishing dynasty. Deforestation in Mexico and farming in the United States have severely destroyed plants desperately needed by monarchs. In the U.S. in particular, herbicides are being used which kill native nectar plants the butterflies feed on, as well as the milkweed where they lay their eggs. (Milkweed is the only plant monarch caterpillars will eat.) 21

Luckily, you can help make all the difference, and all it takes is one square foot of space. Dedicating a square foot of your backyard, or even a window box full of flowering milkweed will help not only the monarch, but also other pollinators like bees and hummingbirds! 22 Native wildflowers also provide a source of nectar, so you can even add some curb appeal to your home while helping these noble critters.

Masses of migrating monarchs have been beautifully described as “the personification of happiness.” 23 And what a sad world this would be without them! So, let’s get gardening and work together to save our friend, the majestic monarch butterfly.

The Monarch Butterfly – A Kingdom in Decline | Project Endangered Tigers

15 “Monarch Butterfly,” WWF, accessed April 23, 2021, https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/monarch-butterfly.
16 “An Epic Monarch Migration Faces New Threats,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/epic-monarch-butterfly-migration-faces-threats-180977449/.
17 “Migration and Overwintering,” U.S. Forest Service, accessed April 23, 2021, https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/Monarch_Butterfly/migration/#:~:text=Monarchs%20can%20travel%20between%2050,Rosario%20Sanctuary%2C%20Michoacan%2C%20Mexico.
18 “An Epic Monarch Migration Faces New Threats,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/epic-monarch-butterfly-migration-faces-threats-180977449/.
19 “Monarch Butterfly,” Center for Biological Diversity, accessed April 23, 2021, https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/invertebrates/monarch_butterfly/.
20 “Monarch Butterfly,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, accessed April 23, 2021, https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/.
21 “Monarch Butterfly,” The National Wildlife Federation, accessed April 23, 2021, https://www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Wildlife-Guide/Invertebrates/Monarch-Butterfly.
22 “Create Habitat for Monarchs,” Monarch Joint Venture, accessed April 23, 2021, https://monarchjointventure.org/get-involved/create-habitat-for-monarchs.
23 “Monarch Butterfly,” Center for Biological Diversity, accessed April 23, 2021, https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/invertebrates/monarch_butterfly/.

Works Cited

“An Epic Monarch Migration Faces New Threats,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/epic-monarch-butterfly-migration-faces-threats-180977449/.

“Create Habitat for Monarchs,” Monarch Joint Venture, accessed April 23, 2021, https://monarchjointventure.org/get-involved/create-habitat-for-monarchs.

“Migration and Overwintering,” U.S. Forest Service, accessed April 23, 2021,
https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/Monarch_Butterfly/migration/#:~:text=Monarchs%20can%20travel%20between%2050,Rosario%20Sanctuary%2C%20Michoacan%2C%20Mexico.

“Monarch Butterfly,” Center for Biological Diversity, accessed April 23, 2021, https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/invertebrates/monarch_butterfly/.

“Monarch Butterfly,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, accessed April 23, 2021, https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/.

“Monarch Butterfly,” The National Wildlife Federation, accessed April 23, 2021, https://www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Wildlife-Guide/Invertebrates/Monarch-Butterfly.

“Monarch Butterfly,” WWF, accessed April 23, 2021, https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/monarch-butterfly.


Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

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