Thursday, July 18, 2013

How Can We Help Monarchs?

MonarchNot a single Monarch butterfly was spotted in the Lake Placid butterfly count conducted by citizen scientists Saturday, July 13.  This marks only the second time in the 20-year history of the count that no Monarch was sighted by the volunteers.

The Insectarium de Montreal issued a press release with this opening paragraph on July 16:

The first monarch butterflies generally arrive in Québec in mid-June. This year, experts and the many people taking part in citizen science initiatives monitoring monarchs have seen an estimated drop of 90% in the overall monarch population in Eastern Canada. This is unheard of. Across the continent, scientists and butterfly enthusiasts are worried, and the Montréal Insectarium echoes their questions and concerns: could the migration of monarchs in eastern North America one day disappear altogether?

The word is much the same all over the U.S. and Canada.

Dr. Lincoln Brower, a preeminent researcher who has been studying Monarchs for many decades wrote this assessment for July 16:

As is now known, the total area occupied by monarch butterflies during the 2012-2013 overwintering season in Mexico hit an all-time low over the 20 years that quantitative monitoring has been carried out,   As a result, the numbers of surviving butterflies migrating back into the Gulf Coast states in late March and early April  2013 were diminished.   Then, as the new generation offspring continued the migration northward in April and May, they were held back by cold fronts and their normal dispersal across the broad sweep north and eastwards was blocked.  Subsequent daily notes on the Monarch Watch website and weekly updates on the Journey North website have reported very few monarchs seen across the entire breeding range, from Kansas to the Atlantic coast, and northward into the Toronto region.   The continued early summer cool weather in the central and northern breeding range also slowed the rate of development of the monarch caterpillars.   So, in comparison to normal summers when three to four generations are produced, this season only two or perhaps three generations will be produced.  This means that the normal August-September expansion of the butterfly’s population cannot occur this summer.  Both Chip Taylor (who manages Monarch Watch) and I are predicting that this coming fall migration may be the lowest on record (back to the 19th century).  Together with the loss of breeding habitat thanks to the massive killing of milkweeds across the Midwest (because of GMO herbicide corn and soybean agriculture which is obliterating milkweeds and nectar sources on an unprecedented scale ), and the past and continuing deterioration of the overwintering habitat  in Mexico, the situation is not propitious.  I do not think we will lose the migration, but the whole system is under very heavy negative pressure from several fronts.  Let us wait, hope, and see.

The bad news underscores the importance of the Monarch initiative by this year and the Monarch education program and movie at The Wild Center.  ( donated $20,000 to bring the big-screen movie Flight of the Butterflies to The Wild Center for a year.  It is a must see.)

Monarchs in the Adirondacks are members of a so-called  “super generation” which lives nine months, much longer than earlier generations and long enough to travel more than 2,000 miles to winter in Mexico, then fly another 750 miles back to the Southern U.S. in the spring to renew the migratory cycle.  Some Monarchs may travel up to 5,000 miles as they weave their way. The Adirondacks are on a flight path for Monarchs traveling southwest in the fall.

Monarch butterflies lay their eggs only on milkweed leaves and their caterpillars eat only milkweed.  The caterpillars ingest a toxin from the milkweed plant that makes them unpalatable to birds and many other predators.

Loss of milkweed for reproduction is the single largest of many threats to Monarchs, according to Dr. Orley R.“Chip” Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch and a University of Kansas professor specializing in Monarch research.  Dr. Taylor links the decline in Monarch populations to the rising use of genetically modified, herbicide-resistant crops in the Midwest. Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup is used extensively on GMO corn and soybean crops that have been altered to be insensitive to it.   Other plants, such as milkweed and native flowers are killed when nearby GMO crops are sprayed.  Dr. Taylor estimates that 63% of all milkweed plants in the Midwest have been wiped out in the past 10 years, as have nectaring plants which once flourished on the American prairie, an historic major breeding area for Monarchs and other pollinators such as bees. is sponsoring a lecture by Dr. Taylor at The Wild Center Aug. 23 at 7:30 p.m.  He is one of the top scientists in the world studying butterflies and other pollinators.

In the Adirondacks, providing lots of milkweed for reproduction and late-blooming flowers for food for adult butterflies is the most important thing we can do to help.  Boosting the amount of milkweed here and elsewhere can help offset its loss in other parts of the country.

It was for this reason that in early June wrote to every highway superintendent, town board, and county legislator in the Adirondacks to ask them to time roadside mowing this year to help Monarchs at this time of crisis [pdf].  Franklin County and many of the towns contracted to mow for that county are to be commended for their cooperation by mowing before July 1 and then not again until mid-September, when the butterflies who will migrate have emerged.  Officials in some other parts of the Adirondacks were quoted in a Glens Falls Post Star account expressing concerns about public safety, or reacting with a dismissive quip. hopes they will reconsider after learning of results of a 2012 scientific study conducted for the federal Transportation Research Board which found absolutely no relationship between reduced roadside mowing and deer-vehicle crashes.

The study was done by Sarah Barnum, Ph.D., senior wildlife ecologist for Normandeau Associates.  The study compared the statistics on deer-vehicle crashes in six very rural Maryland locations and four in New York comparing data three years prior to and three years after a reduction in roadside mowing.  Dr. Barnum said the study was the first quantitative analysis to look for a link between mowing and deer-vehicle crashes and found none. Further, Dr. Barnum said in a phone interview that the preponderance of deer-vehicle crashes occur in October, long after the date seeks for a final mowing date.  Deer crashes in general, she said, are at night, when the visibility issue is darkness, not roadside vegetation.

The Post Star quoted Chester Highway Superintendent Jason Monroe as characterizing’s reduced mowing request as “kind of crazy.”  He added, “It would save us a lot of money though.”

Yes, it would save taxpayers a lot of money — might even save thousands of Monarchs with the capacity to migrate back to the U.S. next spring and lay millions of eggs.  We suggest’s request for reduced mowing is not crazy at all.

Visit the website Monarch pages to learn simple ways you can help and get more information about milkweed, Monarchs, details of the migration, colorful maps, photographs and many Informative links to videos and other material.

 Photo: Tom Curley’s photo of a Monarch and cone flowers on Upper Saranac Lake.

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Marsha Stanley is a former reporter for the Rochester Times Union, where she covered government and did investigative reporting. She freelanced for many years for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, writing feature stories for the Sunday magazine. She holds a bachelor of journalism from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Marsha is a founding member and on the board of

8 Responses

  1. Beatrice Didio says:

    My Daughter Alysia is devoted to preserving Butterfly habitats and we have Milk Weed plants in our front yard and back, in addition to flowers they like. We live in Glens Falls, NY.( upstate NY). We have not seen any other Butterflies this year and not one Monarch. She is an Organic Vegetarian and this land is free of pesticides and only Organic seeds and plants were used. She started this garden several years ago and the Milkweed this year was very productive, the best yet. We did read an article 2 weeks ago that the population of Monarch Butterflies were down 60% on Migration last year.Has anyone seen any Butterflies in our area this year? Bees also have vanished. Frogs that were coming here from nearby ponds have also vanished. What a sad loss. Our Milkweed plants are producing pods are the plants of any use now to Butterflies? The flowers have died off. Thank You for your help. Bea-& Alysia Smith (daughter)

    • Beatrice, if you cut back your milkweed, new, tender growth will emerge that is attractive for breeding Monarchs and caterpillars. Don’t hesitate to give it a good haircut.

      Thanks for your interest. Please visit our Monarch pages on to learn lots more.

      Marsha Stanley,
      Chair of Monarch Project

  2. On my walking route there is a field of Milkweed that bloomed prolifically this year but on all of my daily walks I saw only one butterfly around that field. Normally I would expect it to attract hundreds. I don’t do formal counts but it seems to me that butterfly populations are way down this summer, fewer than I have ever seen in the past.

  3. eastern monarch butterfly farm says:

    great article, we’re doing our part in upstate NY. We raise and release around 700 to a thousand each year and sell milkweed plants at our local farmers market.
    You can visit us on facebook as we don’t have a web page yet. facebook… eastern monarch butterfly farm.

  4. Paul Cherubini says:

    The monarchs are not in trouble.

    They were in swarming numbers in the upper Midwest in 2010 & 2011:

    And a month from now I will be filming swarms in that same area again.

  5. The Disappearance of the Monarch Butterfly | – Taking the CON out of Conspiracy – Kindle – Android – iPhone – iPad – Samsung Compatible website says:

    […] it tuned out the problem extended beyond Star’s homestead. There may not have been a single monarch butterfly in the entire 6 million acre Adirondack Park this […]

  6. MARY CAIN says:


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