Monarch Butterflies: Down But Not Out–with a Little Help from their Friends

In 2008 we tagged almost 600 and had two recoveries.

About this time every year I start to wonder if we’ll have a blockbuster Monarch butterfly migration like we did in 2008, or a disappointing bust as was 2009.   While only Mother Nature knows for sure, it’s certain that when butterfly friends intervene by retrieving eggs from milkweed plants and providing food and protection from predators, the chances for completion of the cycle to the butterfly stage jumps from 10% to 90%.

That’s right, folks.  For every 100 eggs a female Monarch butterfly lays, only 10 are likely to become a butterfly.  But if we lend a hand as butterfly wranglers, the odds go up to 90%.

This year couldn’t be more crucial for Monarch butterflies need a little help from their friends.  The 2009-2010 Monarch butterfly population was hit with a double whammy. First, scientists believe a historically low number of Monarchs made it back home to Mexico.  Habitat destruction, the severe drought, we don’t really know why.  There just wasn’t enough milkweed to go around.

According to the Monarchwatch report on the subject, the roosting area in 2009 only covered about 4.74 acres compared to the historic average of 18.37 acres.   That the entire migrating Monarch butterfly population of North America roosts for the winter in an area less than five acres is remarkable.  This suggests that way fewer butterflies made it home to the oyamel trees where they take their winter break at the end of 2009.

Then, in early February, a terrible storm hit the region surrounding the overwintering site.  More than 15 inches of rain fell in just a few days. Snow, hail, landslides, and habitat destruction ensued.  When the storms finally passed, at least six local residents were dead and 50% of the Monarch butterfly population killed.

Monarch Butterfly chrysalis envy

Tami Gingrich of northeastern Ohio has raised thousands of Monarch butterflies since 1972.

But don’t underestimate the incredibly resilient and prolific Monarch butterfly.  Thanks to a long, wet Spring and plentiful milkweed, surveys predict a healthy rebound.  Early reports from up North suggest the Monarchs may recoup their prior numbers.

People like Tami Gingrich of northeastern Ohio are doing their part.  ”Already have 500 chrysalis’ and at least 400 more caterpillars. I think I may have overdone it,” she wrote on the Monarchwatch Facebook page.   Thousands–3,497 to be exact–of butterfly lovers check the page, posting photos, comments and wisdom about how to keep the cycle going.

With friends like that, the Monarchs are bound to be OK.

2 thoughts on “Monarch Butterflies: Down But Not Out–with a Little Help from their Friends

    • Hi Bob,
      Your best source for info is the McClean County MAster Gardeners. Here’s a link to their webpage: http://web.extension.illinois.edu/mclean/mg/index.html

      Zone 5 is very different from where we live here in Central and South Texas, but one universal rule for butterfly gardening is you want nectar plants that multiple flower openings–milkweed, tickweed, lantana, pentas, purple coneflower–that allow the butterflies multiple access to the nectaries where the nectar syrup is stored. Butterflies are just like us in that they want to be efficient with their energy. If they can sit in one spot and slurp nectar from more than one opening with their long-reaching probiscus by not moving, they will chose those plants.

      Of course, if you want to enjoy eggs and caterpillars in addition to the butterfly part of the cycle, that’s a whole different game. Check with your local Master Gardeners and I’ll bet they have specific reccs for your region. Good luck and let me know how it goes!

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