Missing Monarchs


(This 1167th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 4, 2013.)


Dave and Alexis at their Farmers' Market exhibit


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 are we seeing no butterflies at all.


I hadn't noticed their absence when the first query came in a week ago, but then I realized that I had seen just a half dozen butterflies this year, only one of them a monarch. Had I not been paying attention?


Whether or not my attention had wandered, it turns out that monarchs in particular 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 were 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 about 60 miles northwest of Mexico City, wintering grounds that are now protected in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve established by the Mexican government. UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage site in 2008.


Twenty years ago the number of butterflies there was estimated as between 600 million and one billion. All those butterflies crowded into fourteen separate enclaves with a total area of only about 50 acres. A little math suggests that is equivalent to between 275 and 460 butterflies per square foot.


Those were in good times. By 2011 the acreage covered by the monarchs had dwindled from 50 to just over seven acres and last winter it shrank to less than three.


One estimate of last winter's monarch numbers is still 60 million, but that represents an 80% to 90% decline, continuing a downward trend over the past half dozen years.


Mexican monarch numbers have always fluctuated from year to year often due to weather conditions. According to entomologist Chip Taylor, last year's summer 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 says.


I talked with Dave O'Donnell about these problems. He offered some encouragement: 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.


As I indicated in a column last year Dave and his colleague Alexis Machelor raise monarchs from eggs through the caterpillar stage to adult butterflies. And they share their enthusiasm for these insects with others. As in the past, they man a booth at the Clarence Farmers' Market every Saturday. There they sell monarch eggs, caterpillars and cocoons essentially at cost. This gives buyers an opportunity to watch this insect's life cycle.


Dave gave my wife one of the green chrysalises in a little plastic case and she was enthralled after a few days to watch the metamorphosed insect emerge and unfold its wings. Even its colors had changed: she knew that the caterpillar that encased itself in its tube had been yellow, white and black; the emerging butterfly was orange and black. As instructed, she released the monarch in our backyard and watched as it spent a few minutes drying its wings in the sun before flying off over our juniper hedge.


Even more important, Dave and Alexis sell milkweed plants to add to your gardens. Those will support future monarchs.-- Gerry Rising