Monarchs in Decline



We let the meadow behind the house grow last year, instead of cutting it down to the ground, like a ripe hay- field, sometime around the 4th of July, as we’d always done. We did this because we wanted a good crop … of milkweed.

We were invested in milkweed plants not for themselves but because we wanted monarchs in the meadow. Wanted them there by the hundreds, like in the old days and as we had not seen them for years.

The little meadow has always been good for wildlife. I can see a good part of it from my office window and, so, have spent a lot of time idly watching and studying what goes on out there. No telling how many books and magazine pieces (like this one) I might have committed to if I hadn’t had that meadow to distract me.

I’ve watched bears, deer, foxes, coyotes, and bobcats from my window. Birds of all sorts, to include a grouse that used the trunk of a fallen ash tree on the meadow’s edge as a drumming log one spring. Later, a goshawk moved in to prey on the young grouse that hatched not far from the fallen ash.

And, then, there were the butterflies. Monarchs, precisely.

There were other butterflies that danced over the meadow in the late, warm days of summer. But it was the monarchs that really caught your attention and held it. They are bright orange, mingled with black, and you could be forgiven for thinking of them as just a bit too gaudy to be called beautiful. But when my daughters were very young, they loved monarchs and probably it was the colors that sealed it for them.

So we read up about them, together, in the National Geographic. I did the reading and they supplied commentary on the photographs. Both the story and the visuals were eye opening. Especially the part about how the monarchs we saw in the late summer in our meadow would soon migrate almost 3,000 miles to a small area of Mexico where ancient oyamel trees grow. When the monarchs emerged from hibernation they would reverse their migration, mating, laying eggs, and launching the miraculous process that ends with their transmogrification from caterpillar to butterfly.

That caterpillar is a strikingly ugly creature. Pus-yellow with black and white bands and things that look like horns growing from its head. When we were doing our researches, my daughters found some on the few milkweeds plants on the margins of the meadow where they had survived mowing.

They had a hard time believing that anything that “gross” would become a beautiful monarch. But, when the metamorphosis was done and butterflies were dancing on the air over the meadow they were thrilled. So was I.

As the years went by, we noticed that there were fewer and fewer monarchs in the late summer and early fall when we were accustomed to seeing them. And we learned in the way you do these days—from the internet—that that problem wasn’t entirely a shortage of oyamel trees in Mexico, as those Geographic stories had reported. There is still some illegal logging of the trees but the greater problem for the monarch is an insufficiency of milkweed.

The monarch will lay its eggs on no other plant and the ugly caterpillars eat virtually nothing else. So there must be enough milkweed along the monarch’s migratory route to sustain the four generations that mate, lay eggs, hatch, and undergo that transformation. Milkweed, then, must be available from Texas and other points south, through the mid-western farm states and up into New England and my little meadow. Without milkweed, no monarchs.

According to one study, there has been a decrease of more than 20% in milkweed acreage over the last two decades. Where it grows on highway right-of-ways, the road crews mow it down. Gardeners cut it down or pull it out by its roots. And farmers kill it with herbicides that do not effect their corn and soybean crops which are genetically modified to be herbicide resistant.

So we left our meadow unmowed and waited for the monarchs. But they never came. Still, I didn’t give up all hope until one day when I drove by a field that I had remembered as being fallow for many years. It had probably been pasture, at one time, before the family that had farmed it gave up.

The field, I saw, had gone over to a new use. One that would forever take it out of milkweed production.

It was covered over with solar panels.

The monarch, it seems, just can’t catch a break.


-Geoffrey Norman