What do AL, ID, IL, KY, MN, TX, WV, and VT all have in common?

For each of these states the spectacular monarch is the official state butterfly or insect.  But there is concern this beloved butterfly may be going extinct.  In 2013 there was over a 90% decline in this iconic and beautiful migrating butterfly.  The alarms went off in gardens all over America last year as we waited to see the flashes of orange alight on our milkweed plants, feed on the nectar and lay their eggs.  The monarch caterpillar eats only milkweed plants and gardeners aware of this often grow them as beacons of life and feeding stations for the millions of monarchs summering in North America so the next generation has the energy to fly back to Mexico to over-winter. 

My wife Lynette allows hundreds of perennial milkweed plants (common milkweed: Asclepias syriaca) to grow every year and dominate our front garden.  This year we waited and waited, but not one of the regal butterflies appeared.  We wondered what was going on?

Then we read this article in November and our worst fears were confirmed.  The count of monarchs migrating to the forests of central Mexico for the winter was down by 95%.  Rather than millions arriving in early November announcing the time to harvest corn the butterflies were late and in never-before-seen small numbers.

The reasons for this abrupt population decline are largely known as they are also causing the decline of honey bees, thousands of species of native bees and other pollinators that provide pollination services for 80% of our food crops and gardens.  The reasons include:

•    The precipitous loss of native habitat especially in huge areas of the Midwest where crop subsidies motivate farmers to grow only corn and soybeans for hundreds of miles in every direction.  About 50% of the monarch eggs are laid in these Midwestern prairie areas but the majority of milkweed habitat there has been converted to corn and soybean crops.

•    Urban development, expansion of "monoculture" lawns and landscapes, and mowing of natural habitats that host migratory insects and birds.  These land use changes reduce milkweed plants even more.

•    Roundup-type herbicides that kill nearly all plants (including milkweed) except "Roundup ready" commercial crops that are genetically modified to survive the herbicide.

•    Neonicotinoids, the first new class of insecticides introduced in the last 50 years, are persistent and can concentrate in the soil.  Recent research points to these pesticides as harming bees, butterflies and even birds. They were just banded for a two year test period in the European Union.

But there is hope for monarchs.  It starts with growing millions of milkweed plants.  This vibrant wildflower with many species is native to much of the US.  It is not only beautiful, it's essential to the life cycle of Monarch butterflies.  They sip the plentiful nectar; lay their eggs under the leaves, and then their fat striped caterpillars gobble the leaves (the only food that can sustain them).  No milkweed plants, not monarch butterflies. 

Monarch Watch has been committed to monarch conservation, protection and education for over 20 years.  They are leading a new campaign called Bring Back the Monarchs that helps home gardeners, schools, and communities plant "way-stations" of milkweed plants for migrating monarchs.  Please consider getting involved.

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