Last year at this time, I was receiving many inquiries about the large number of unfamiliar butterflies. The countryside seemed filled with red admirals. This year, the situation is quite different. This year’s inquiries are not about butterfly identification; rather, they ask why we are seeing no butterflies at all.
I hadn’t noticed their absence when the first query came in a week ago, but then I realized I had seen just a half dozen butterflies this year, only one of them a monarch. Had I not been paying attention?
It turns out that monarchs are well down in numbers this year. When I asked monarch specialist Dave O’Donnell in mid-July if he had seen any, his response was, “Not one that I haven’t raised myself.”
And this year’s early July annual butterfly count bears out this dearth of monarchs. None was reported instead of the usual dozens. Clearly something is wrong. And this might signal a serious concern. Butterflies are pollinators and our food crops are supported in part by them. We are already faced with a steep decline in honeybees due to colony collapse disorder. Are the butterflies to follow? Just how bad is the problem?
Recall that most of our monarch butterflies migrate all the way to Mexico. There, a major proportion of them overwinter in the forests of the San Madre Mountains, wintering grounds that are now protected in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve established by the Mexican government. Twenty years ago, the number of butterflies there was estimated at between 600 million and 1 billion. One estimate of last winter’s monarch numbers is 60 million.
According to entomologist Chip Taylor, last summer’s heat and drought dried insect eggs and reduced the nectar content of the milkweed on which the monarch larvae and adults feed, thus causing some of the reduction in numbers. But Taylor suggests another reason for the continuing decline: the widespread use of herbicide-tolerant crops. This has given farmers the power to eliminate encroaching weeds, some of which provide insect food, like milkweed. “We’ve lost well over 120 million acres, and probably closer to 150 million acres,” he said.
O’Donnell offered some encouragement, saying friends of his are beginning to see a few more monarchs in Pennsylvania, and some of those should soon reach us. But he agrees that their declining numbers represent a serious concern.
He and his colleague Alexis Machelor raise monarchs from eggs through the caterpillar stage to adult butterflies. They share their enthusiasm for these insects with others, manning a booth at the Clarence Farmers’ Market every Saturday. There they sell monarch eggs, caterpillars and cocoons essentially at cost, giving buyers an opportunity to watch this insect’s life cycle. Even more important, they sell milkweed plants to add to your gardens. Those will support future monarchs.