Of all the things to protect, why butterflies? For their good looks? For their symbolic value as things that undergo dramatic change inside cocoons?
And because they’re good pollinators.
But the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy suggests that monarchs are also canaries in the contemporary coal mine, meaning that their death should signal us that we’re in danger ourselves. And monarch populations have declined 80% in the past twenty years, largely because monarchs depend on a plant family that people don’t like: milkweeds. They grow between rows of corn and soybeans in the Great Midwest, and they send out those cottony seeds that float from one row to another, from one field to another, from one county to another, spreading milkweeds everywhere. According to insect ecologist Chip Taylor, of the University of Kansas, farmers used to control those weeds with a tiller, which chops weeds and turns the soil without disturbing crops. “The milkweed survives that sort of tillage to some extend,” Taylor says. “So there may be 20, 30, 40 plants per acre out there, enough so that you could see them.”
Since 1996, when the Monsanto Corporation began engineering corn and soybeans that tolerated repeated applications of its Roundup herbicide, most large-scale farming in America has shifted toward those products — and thus shifted away from weed-control practices that afforded milkweeds a modest survival rate.
Lincoln Brower, a biologist at Sweet Briar College, says that there 108 different species
of milkweed in the United States. “The whole monarch migration evolved in relation to this milkweed flora,” Brower says, and recent studies show that 60% of those plants have been eliminated from the grassland ecosystem of the midwest. “We’re not talking about one species,” Brower says. “We’re talking about an entire native flora being eliminated.”
Herbicides kill not only milkweeds, where monarchs lay their eggs, but also wildflowers which provide the nectar adult monarchs need to survive. Brower says that between the time they emerge from the chrysalis and the time they head for Mexico, adult monarchs pack on 100 mg of fat, all of which comes from wildflowers. Without that fuel, they can’t make the trip.
So one answer to the question why butterflies is that we don’t have to revamp the whole
system of American agriculture to help them recover. All we have to do is plant a few milkweeds and nectar sources in our gardens. Great Country Farms has joined the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy’s “Keeping the Magic Alive” campaign by establishing a monarch way station here on the farm and designing a butterfly tour option for visiting school groups to help children and their teachers understand the plight of the monarch.
To join the campaign in your own back yard, visit the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy’s website.