In the next couple of weeks, monarch butterflies should begin showing up in Wichita.
Savor and take time to notice them. These particular monarchs are hardy survivors in what, for them, has been one of the most devastating winters in decades.
Millions have died from the cold in Mexico. Much of their refuge has been destroyed. Officials say the number of monarch butterflies making it to their winter refuge in Mexico dropped 59 percent this year, continuing a rapid decline that began several years ago.
“It is disconcerting to say the population is low, but it is no longer an anomaly,” said Jim Mason, naturalist for the city of Wichita. “It is a trend.
“I don’t think we will see the monarchs go extinct, but we might lose the migration phenomenon of them going back and forth from the refuges in Central Mexico to the United States and Canada. If that group doesn’t survive the winter, there is no genetic predisposition to seek out. There will be no survivors to carry it on to their descendants.”
Lincoln Brower, a leading entomologist at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, said in a statement that “the report of the dwindling monarch butterfly winter residence in Mexico is ominous. … All three countries need to face up to the fact that it is our collective activates that are killing the migratory phenomenon of the monarch butterfly.”
The monarchs breed and live in the north in the summer, then migrate to Mexico in the winter. They typically arrive in Wichita the first week in April.
Researchers don’t count the individual number of butterflies but instead measure the amount of forest in Mexico that they cover during the winter. This winter, the butterflies covered 2.93 acres, down from 7.14 acres last year.
Add to that the threats they face in Kansas and throughout the Midwest: a drought, and farming practices that are destroying the only plant on which the butterflies can lay their eggs – milkweed. Because of mowing and herbicides and genetically modified corn and soybeans – which prevent milkweed from growing – the butterflies are finding it harder and harder to find areas where they can lay their eggs.
In addition, there is urban sprawl – which continues to erode habitat – as well as incidental deaths due to automobiles and predators such as birds and cats.
“What we have to think about in Kansas is that we hope we don’t go through another year like the last two with drought,” said Orley “Chip” Taylor. He is a professor of biological sciences at the University of Kansas and heads a national program called Monarch Watch, which focuses on education, conservation and research about monarchs.
“That’s what will affect monarchs and everything else,” Taylor said.
Illegal logging in Mexico at the monarchs’ wintering grounds was long thought to contribute to the decline of the species. But logging has been greatly reduced by increased protection, enforcement and alternative development programs in Mexico. The World Wildlife Fund, one of the groups that sponsored the butterfly census, blames climate conditions and agricultural practices.
But there is something people can do to help, Taylor said. The best thing is to have an abundance of flowers blooming in September, when the butterflies return to Mexico.
People can plant butterfly milkweed and nectar plants such as verbena, asters, phlox, coneflowers and sunflowers.
Monarch Watch – by enlisting individuals, schools, nature centers, businesses and groups – has created way stations that feature flowers and plants that attract monarchs.
The monarchs then pollinate the flowers as they move from plant to plant sipping nectar.
“We have over 6,000 way stations across the nation, about 215 in Kansas,” Taylor said. “And that’s just the people who have registered with us. Some people don’t register their sites.”
Contributing: Associated Press