How Does the Migrating Monarch Butterfly Population Look This Year? Grim, thanks to Drought, Wildfires and Herbicides

The arrival of my Monarch tags last week summoned thoughts of crisp fall days chasing Monarch butterflies.   What will this year’s migration bring?  Will Central and South Texas witness parades of Monarchs on their way to the Mexican mountains?

Monarch tags
Monarch tags are here
It’s impossible to know for sure.  Monarch butterfly news this year has been mixed, but mostly glum.   The World Wildlife Fund declared in February that the population had doubled at the roosting sanctuaries since last year while pointing out in the same report that the numbers were the lowest since record-keeping began in 1993.
In its updated May report,  the WWF touted that deforestation tied to illegal logging in the Mexican roosting preserves had declined by 97% in 2010, compared to 2009.
That’s great, but wait: in the August 2  Monarch Watch butterfly population status report, Dr. Chip Taylor notes that because of the widespread adoption of herbicide tolerant crops, milkweed, the Monarch butterfly host plant, has been eliminated in 81% of its habitat in recent years. So even if the Monarchs roosted safely in Mexico, survived a brutal winter, faced a historic drought, and navigated raging wildfires, Round-Up ready crops have so decimated their naturally occurring host plant, that egg-laying sites are few and far between.
Monarch Watch confirmed the grim outlook in an innocent Facebook post on August 9:

So how does the monarch population look in your area? Let us know where you are and what you are seeing!

More than one hundred of Monarch Watch’s 6400+ fans responded. Frownie faces

🙁

punctuated the pessimistic replies,  which spanned the Eastern U.S.  and outnumbered positive retorts, 96 to 19.
Here’s a random sample:

  • “Slim pickings here in Ann Arbor, Michigan.” –Terri Czarney Fisher
  • “I haven’t seen more than five Monarchs.  The stand of milkweed in my garden and on public parks/land that I know about have barely been touched, no chewing evidence of cats. Definitely smaller numbers than last year.”–Cathy Millington, Morris County, New Jersey
  • “I’ve been rearing about half of what I normally would at this time.” –Anne Schmidt, Eastern Iowa
  • “Usually we would have had a couple generations by now.  I usually find 20 – 30 eggs to start and maybe one or two don’t make it.  So this year is not looking good.”–Abigail Meuinck, Mishawaka, Indiana

A few encouraging replies stood out.  Minnesota in particular boasted a promising Monarch population.

  • “There are Monarch eggs on paractically every single milkweed plant I look at! It’s more than I’ve ever seen.”–Aisling O’Sullivan, St. Paul, Minnesota
  • “There sems to be a lot of them this year.  I’ve got a dozen in jars eating away and another half dozen or so ready to be brought in so I can tag them.” Mary Tierney, Minneapolis, Minnesota

It’s too early for Monarchs here in Texas, although I spotted my FOS (first of season) at the milkweed patch on the San Antonio Riverwalk this weekend.  While Dr. Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, blogged August 2 that “there will still be plenty of monarchs to tag, ” this year, there’s no guarantee they will funnel through Central Texas.  Given our lack of nectar sources and inhospitable environs, they’re likely to take a coastal route like they did in 2009, where moisture has made blooms more plentiful.
It could all change overnight with the perfectly positioned tropical storm parked over the Texas Hill Country for a day.  Much needed rain, and soon, would give dormant nectar sources time to perk up and bloom.
Keep your fingers crossed.

7 Responses

  1. Ann Rogerson Weaver
    | Reply

    talked me into it, but there is no way I can tag as many as I’ve got. Maybe I’ll purchase a few tags. Wouldn’t it be great if you found one of mine?

  2. Monika Maeckle
    | Reply

    It’s so much fun. Having your Monarchs recovered and showing up in the database is a special treat.

  3. Ann Rogerson Weaver
    | Reply

    I haven’t tagged in years; maybe I need to get back into that. I’ve lots of chyrsalises and pick new leaves with eggs daily, so I have caters in all stages. Hope it rains and my milkweed holds out, but a lot of it has already dried up and dropped leaves.

  4. Monika Maeckle
    | Reply

    That’s a great point, Anne, and milkweed fans have even proposed that the Monsantos of the world devote resources to developing a Round-Up resistant milkweed. Nature adapts, no doubt, but in the meantime a milkweed shortage prevails.
    There are also concerns that the pollen from herbicide resistant and genetically modified crops will blow onto wild and organic plants effecting them in unplanned ways. If you have room in your yard or landscape, add some milkweed. Monarch Watch has a great milkweed guide, and for those in Texas, check out the Texas Butterfly Ranch guide to native milkweeds.
    http://texasbutterflyranch.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/milkweed-guide-choose-best-plants-for-monarch-butterflies/
    Thanks for writing, and good luck with all those caterpillars! Maybe we’ll see some of them down here.

  5. Ann Rogerson Weaver
    | Reply

    Interesting information. I have planted common milkweed in my yard and it is taking over and I really don’t care. I have never had as many caterpillars as I have right now and because of the drought may not have enough milkweed to sustain them all. I do not know where there is any wild milkweed growing around here. In my daughter’s community, there used be a lot of it in undeveloped spots, but developers have managed to get rid of all of it. We transplanted some to her yard and it is doing well. My husband is a small farmer and he uses Roundup Ready beans and has found that some weeds are developing resistance to Roundup! Maybe milkweed will develop resistance, too, but I’ve never seen in any of our fields ever or our cow pastures. Education is the key a change in attitudes.

  6. Monika Maeckle
    | Reply

    Ranchers hate milkweed because it’s distasteful–sometimes toxic–to cows. Farmers dislike its invasive properties and hearty nature which often outcompetes corn and soybeans. Large chemical companies have developed genetically modified corn and soybeans that can take Round-Up, the most commonly used weedkiller, so now they can spray promiscuously, killing everything in sight and the food crops will remain unaffected.
    Round-Up ready crops are one of the biggest factors in habitat loss for Monarch butterflies. A large percentage of wild milkweed formerly grew in between the rows of corn and soybeans in the heartland and now that’s not the case. Dang.

  7. Jody and Ken
    | Reply

    Probably a stupid question, but is milkweed considered an agricultural pest? And when you talk about “Round Up ready crops” you mean the crops are impervious to it–so Round Up may be used liberally, thus killing everything but the crops?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *