The migratory patterns of the celebrated Monarch butterfly, along with its inherent beauty, makes it one of the most iconic butterflies. The state butterfly of 8 states (Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, North Carolina, Texas, Vermont and West Virginia), monarch butterflies are common throughout North America. These fascinating insects travel thousands of miles during their annual fall migration from parts of Northern United States and Canada to the warm fir forests of the Sierra Madre in Mexico. When the temperatures start to get warmer around spring, the monarchs complete their phenomenal migration by making their journey back to their breeding grounds in the north.
The monarch butterfly is not yet considered endangered, but their numbers are dwindling rapidly. Deforestation, which is primarily being driven by extensive illegal logging projects, is eroding their critical habitat in Mexico. Without sufficient fir trees, monarchs face freezing snow, wind, and rain, and predators. In their northern habitats throughout the United States and Canada, monarchs also face habitat destruction by means of agricultural, housing, and road expansion. Further, scientists assert that global climate change render the butterflies’ over-wintering sites in Mexico’s Transvolcanic Range wetter and their summer breeding grounds throughout the west coast and Midwestern United States warmer.
Another significant (and controversial) cause of concern for monarch butterflies is the increase in genetically modified crops. In 1999, Nature published a laboratory study, which showed that pollen from genetically modified corn caused high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars. This was allegedly being caused by pollen from genetically modified corn being blown by the wind onto milkweed plants (the food of monarch butterflies). This study generated tremendous controversy and debate and led to additional scientific studies, which showed that the risks to monarch butterfly populations because of genetically modified corn were fairly small. However, questions about the long-term impacts of exposure to GM crops remain.
Miraculously, the preservation of the butterfly is as simple as promoting a plant extremely suitable for North American climates: milkweed. Milkweed is the monarch’s primary source of food, and preferred location to lay and hatch their eggs. Milkweed grows so easily some gardeners pull it out assuming it is a weed; but the fact is this once-populous plant is dying from prevalent herbicide use. The University of Kansas-based Monarch Watch, an organization dedicated to the preservation and research of monarchs, encourages farmers, gardeners, even city dwellers with a pot of soil to plant milkweed. There are also several conservation efforts being promoted in Mexico to prevent illegal logging and preserve the habitat that the monarchs rely upon. The most notable organization is Monarca, A.C, which has worked with both local people and government agencies to encourage alternative economic options not contingent upon logging, as well as fostering education and research concerning monarch conservation.
Fragile, silent and timid, the amazing migration of these beautiful creatures plays a crucial role in our ecosystem and we should do whatever we can to ensure the continued survival of this magnificent species.