Conserving the monarchs and their migration

Monarch laying eggs  ©Janet Allen
Laying eggs in early summer

For us here in Central New York, between 2007 (when we first started keeping track of monarchs) and 2011, we saw our first monarch in our yard between June 17 to June 26.

But in 2012, we saw one on May 20 and actually gathered eggs from that visit. In 2013, though, in keeping with the national dearth of monarchs and other butterflies, we very briefly saw only four monarchs the whole season and gathered no eggs at all.

Monarch in October  ©Janet Allen
A monarch stopping by in October, on its way to Mexico

Any little creature like the monarch has a host of problems—problems that have existed for millions of years. That's why they lay so many eggs; nature never intended that each egg survive to adulthood.

But we're in a new era now. Humans have so dramatically changed in so many ways how the planet works that it's a challenge for creatures like the monarch to survive.

Evolution simply cannot occur as fast as we're changing the planet.

Age-old problems

Chunk out of wing ©Janet AllenDid a bird get a bad-tasting snack?

Predators This one probably won't make it to Mexico no matter what generation it's in, but even so, it seemed to manage quite well around the yard. I bet the bird that took that chunk out of its wing has learned not to do so again!

Monarchs are poisonous to birds (due to the chemicals they ingest from milkweeds as caterpillars), but birds sometimes have to learn the hard way.

Monarch parasite ©Janet AllenParasite on monarch

Parasites and disease There's a small black dot on the back of this caterpillar. I thought it must be some sort of parasite. Anyway, it seemed to bother the caterpillar, so I gently knocked it off with the end of a pencil. It seemed to work—or at least it didn't hurt it. I kept this caterpillar separated from the others to see what happened, and it successfully became a butterfly. Would that have happened if I left the black thing there? I'll never know…

Whether or not this particular dot was a parasite, there indeed are parasites, insects, and other things that attack monarch caterpillars.

Parasites and predators are disturbing to see, but these are things all creatures have dealt with for millenia. It's a problem for individual monarchs, but not for the species or for the migration itself.

The real problems

highways  ©Janet Allen
Modern highways, mowed and sprayed with herbicide, seldom have milkweeds or native nectar plants

The real problems are those that have happened in just the last decades, and these problems threaten the migration or even the existence of the species itself.

Some of these problems:

  • Habitat loss both in summer breeding areas and in overwintering areas
  • Pesticides
  • Roundup-ready crops
  • Global warming
  • Invasive plants

I can't directly do much about some of these problems except to try to live Our Green, "Good Life," so we don't contribute to climate change and to donate to the organizations listed in the sidebar at the right.

And besides planting milkweed, we remove invasive plants harmful to monarchs.

Help scientists learn more

Monarch tags  ©Janet Allen
Monarchs with their tags

Another way to help monarchs is to help scientists learn more about its life cycle and migration. We participate in some monarch citizen science projects, such as tagging.

The best way I've found to get the tag on the wing is to use a blunt-end tweezers to pick up the edge of the tag and have it sitting there ready for placement. So far, I've only done 25 tags a year because I find it somewhat stressful, but I'm getting more comfortable with the process, so I might begin to order more.

As the photo shows, the first year I had the unfortunate habit of putting the tags upside down, probably making it difficult for people in Mexico to read them with binoculars. I've since been more careful.