Thursday, April 24, 2014

The missing monarchs

The local decline in monarch butterflies this year has been remarkable.  In a bad way, that is.  In contrast to the past few years, now there are almost none.
I've been growing milkweed and serving as a backyard nursery for wild migrating monarchs for the past several years.  This was one of 2013's newborns, a male.  You can see his busted cocoon under the fence rail he's clinging to.  Hard to believe that whole creature was stuffed inside that tiny capsule just moments before.  
For the past two years, I watched hordes of caterpillars devour everything I could throw at them in the way of their milkweed dietary staple. This is also a photo from April 2013.  
Late April 2014, and this particular milkweed plant hasn't even been touched by a caterpillar (the adult females recognize milkweed and lay their eggs directly on the plants).  I have three large pots of the stuff.  One was well chewed, the other barely, and this one not at all.  Last year, all three were eaten down to the stems.    
I've found only two cocoons so far this year, and one of them is attached haphazardly to the side of a planter and looked to be in substandard condition.  The one above looks healthy - I've noticed that cocoons attached beneath cedar fence rails result in a high rate of successful butterflies.

In contrast, by this time last year, I had at least a dozen cocoons (plus probably many more hidden away that I didn't manage to find).  
According to the folks who monitor the health of the monarch population, their current numbers have fallen to the lowest level ever measured.  A number of causes are postulated, mostly involving habitat loss.
There's no habitat loss in my back yard.  They don't call it milkWEED for nothing - it spreads and grows as a weed, with no cultivation required.  Last year I dug up a bunch of volunteer milkweeds that had seeded themselves randomly in my yard and distributed them among my neighbors, hoping that folks would plant a pot and provide additional food to the fluttery migrants.   
Milkweed is only half the battle, though.  Monarchs also need other types of plants to supply nectar, and flowering plants have been in short, late supply in North America due to the whole polar vortex thing that happened this winter.

Anyway, it's a conspiracy of weather and habitat circumstances that is apparently intensifying their decline, but ordinary suburbanites have the option of making a low-effort contribution to help offset those losses.
I used the term "backyard nursery" above, but in the accepted lingo of monarch enthusiasts, the term is "monarch waystation".  But you don't have to get as fancy as officially registering your site - you could just plant milkweed and flowering plants in your yard.  If you plant it, they will come.  For as long as they are not extinct, at least.

Sign photo courtesy of the Monarch Watch website
On that note, I'll leave you with a re-posted video of an emergence from that same fence in 2013.  It's ten minutes long but most of the action takes place in the first 2:20.  The other 8 minutes show how the critter expands its wings very rapidly after emerging.  It's an amazing process.

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