Last week, the Mexican government announced the number of Monarch butterflies counted at the ancestral roosting sites in the oyamel forests of Michoacán, Mexico.
The population grew by almost 70% since last year–from 34 million butterflies occupying 1.65 acres (.67 hectares) in 2014 (the worst year in history) to 56.5 million butterflies occupying 2.79 acres (1.13 hectares) in 2015.
Good news: Monarch butterfly numbers up. Bad news: numbers still dangerously low. Graphic via Monarch Watch
Good news, right?
That depends on where you sit. Dr. Lincoln Brower, perhaps the person on the planet who has studied the Monarch butterfly migration longer than anyone, called the 69% increase “catastrophic” in a phone interview.
Dr. Lincoln Brower–photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund
“That change is trivial,” said Brower. “We were thinking it would be more than two hectares. What we need is up to five hectares.”
George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, said in a press release posted on that organization’s website that despite the increase, the Monarch population is still “severely jeopardized by milkweed loss in their summer breeding grounds due to increasing herbicide use on genetically engineered crops.”
Kimbrell’s organization, with the Center for Biological Diversity, the Xerces Society and Dr. Brower, filed a petition in August to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The petition is currently under review.
If only we could all grow native milkweeds like this Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, found on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country. Aphids come with the territory. Photo by Monika Maeckle
“Extremely vulnerable” is how Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of the citizen scientist Monarch tagging organization Monarch Watch, categorized the increase in a January 27 blogpost. While population increase represents improvement, “Winter storms or poor conditions for breeding in the spring and summer could have a severe impact on a population of this size,” wrote Taylor. He added that if we can get through the winter with no major storms “the long-range forecasts suggest that the population has a good chance of increasing again next year.”
So…numbers up slightly, but still dangerously low. Bad news, right?
Well, not entirely.
Thanks to all the angst and attention, awareness of the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration has reached unprecedented heights. And everyone–even the folks at Monsanto– seems to agree on one point: habitat loss, specifically restoration of native milkweeds, must be addressed on a grand scale if we are to keep the migration from becoming a memory.
We couldn’t agree more. This website has documented and addressed the dearth of native milkweed over the years, answering many questions from readers who want to do the right thing. Where to get them? Should one plant seeds or seedlings? What are the best practices for getting native milkweeds to grow?
The problem is that it’s near impossible to find native milkweed plugs locally. The only milkweed plants available in commercial nurseries each spring is Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, which some scientists have suggested might increase diseases in Monarchs. (I don’t necessarily buy this theory.) To play it safe, best practice suggests cutting Tropical milkweed to the ground in the winter in warmer climates so nasty OE, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, spores, which infect Monarchs and other milkweed feeding butterflies, can’t collect on old plants and infect migrating Monarch butterflies.
So many milkweeds. Which ones to plant, and how to do it? Photo by Monika Maeckle
That said, we would all prefer to plant native local species–IF we could find them. Native seeds are relatively available, but getting them to germinate can be tricky. As George Cates, chief seed wrangler at Native American Seed in Junction, Texas, once told me, Texas milkweeds “may not lend themselves to mass seed production.” Personally, I have spent hundreds of dollars and many many hours spreading native milkweed seeds and homemade native milkweed seedballs at our Llano River Ranch. In 10 years, only three–count ’em–Antelope Horns, Asclepias asperula, milkweed plants have taken root.
That brings us to plugs. I’ve tried those, too. One year I finally coaxed some Antelope Horns seed to germinate after following these directions from the experts at Native American Seed, only to have the seedlings die once transplanted.
In response to a survey conducted by the Texas Butterfly Ranch in late 2014, we’re exploring the possibility of growing native Texas milkweed here in San Antonio with a hydroponic partner, Local Sprout. We haven’t figured out all the details, but we’re working on growing Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, from seeds harvested on the banks of the Llano River.
Meanwhile, we challenge local nurseries and growers to rise to the challenge and make local, native chemical free milkweeds available for the spring migration as well as in the fall.
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