Monarch butterflies have been part of my summers since I was a child. The same is true in most parts of North America. When we lived along the eastern coast of Lake Michigan in the 1970s, we’d see them by the tens of thousands migrating south in the fall. At the time the location winter home of up to a billion of these migrants in central Mexico was not even known.
I have seen fewer than a half-dozen Monarchs this summer. On a recent trip to Michigan I saw one larvae, as magnificent as ever, feeding on milkweed.
My findings are not isolated. Across their range, but particularly in the “corn belt,” the past ten years has been deadly, leaving the population of this beautiful creature in unimaginable decline. The main culprit is the massive rise of industrial farming with its use of GMO crops that are tolerant of herbicides. Where roadsides and fence rows formerly existed as small refuges for the larvae’s main food crop, milkweed, and various wild flowers that feed the butterflies, now only row after row of corn and soybeans grow. To make matters worse, in Mexico extensive illegal logging has destroyed significant portions of the environment where the butterflies over-winter. The combination has been deadly.
Does it matter that this once ubiquitous summer resident is endangered? Many suggest it is similar to the “canary in the coal mine,” a gauge of what is in store for other living creatures, including humans. It is also unthinkable to me that we could be part of the destruction of yet another web of life.
What can each of us do? On a very practical and personal scale, find a place in your yard or neighborhood or city to plant milkweed. This is the perfect time of year to collect seed and spread it wherever you are able! On a more global scale, even if it seems impossible to succeed, we can let others know we will not tolerate the loss of Monarchs. Several groups have petitioned the Secretary of Interior to protect the species under the Endangered Species Act, a good first step. Battles to turn around the use of GMO crops will be even more challenging, but, in the mean time, we can use less ethanol-laced gasoline and buy local meats rather than those fed by the meat machines of the corn-belt—both prime reasons for the rise of industrial farming.
But also take time in the next weeks to look for the butterflies as they migrate. It is a great time to remind ourselves of what is really important in life.