Monarch migration numbers dropping; more milkweed may be the answer

02/03/2014 9:57 AM

02/03/2014 9:57 AM

Got milkweed?

If you like to eat berries, nuts and fruit; if you enjoy the beauty of foliage; if you like sharing the world with birds and small mammals, you better.

Milkweed is chow for monarch butterflies, who flit around the northern United States and Canada in the summer and sun themselves in Mexico in the winter. They pass through Kansas during their annual migration, typically in September and April.

Although the orange-and-black butterflies aren’t in danger of becoming extinct, their annual migration to Mexico is in jeopardy.

“The overwintering numbers are in from Mexico and once again it’s bad news,” Orley “Chip” Taylor, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, wrote last week in a blog for Monarch Group, a national group he heads.

The number of monarchs in Mexico dropped to their lowest level since record-keeping began in 1993, experts said. They blame the displacement of milkweed by genetically modified crops and urban sprawl in the United States; extreme weather trends, and the dramatic reduction of the butterflies’ habitat in Mexico due to illegal logging of the trees they depend on for shelter.

This winter, the butterflies cover 1.65 acres compared with 51 acres in 1996, according to Taylor’s most recent blog post.

Many people might not give much thought to the monarchs other than for their beauty, said Brad Guhr, education and prairie restoration at the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains in Hesston.

“But monarchs are just one representative of a very diverse insect world that is essential to the health of our Kansas natural ecosystem,” Guhr said in an e-mail. “Insects are at the base of the wildlife food chain, and without this base, the rest of the chain would not exist.

“Humans rely on a thriving insect diversity to pollinate our food crops and prey on the insects we consider as pests, just two significant benefits among many.”

The general public doesn’t understand or “appreciate the role that pollinators have,” Taylor said.

“They provide the services that produce the fruits, nuts, seeds, foliage, berries, even roots that other things feed on,” he said. “If you don’t have the pollinators, you don’t have those things. You won’t have small birds, small mammals. You won’t have the larger predatory mammals.

“It’s a cascading kind of thing. You pull the pollinators out of the system, and the system falls apart.”

There are steps, experts say, you can take to keep monarchs passing through Kansas.

“What people can do is plant milkweed,” said Jim Mason, a naturalist for the city of Wichita at the Great Plains Nature Center. “In addition, they can have flowers in their home landscape that supply nectar for the adults.”

“It doesn't take much,” Guhr added. “Monarchs need nectar sources for energy to continue their migration and reproduce. They also need host plants (milkweeds) for their young to eat and grow the next generation that will continue the migratory journey.”

Kansas’ native plants are the best source for nectar and host plants, Guhr said.

“When landowners across the Great Plains landscape and along the monarch migratory route plant even the smallest native plant gardens, they are helping the cause of the monarch,” he said.

Planting milkweed and flowers with an abundance of blooms is the simplest way to help.

“Plants in the sunflower and mint families are both good flowers that monarchs will utilize,” Mason said.

Monarch Watch sells seed kits to people who want to create monarch waystations, places where monarchs can feed. The group has registered more than 7,300 waystations across the country, including in Kansas.

Their locations can be found online at www.monarchwatch.org/waystations/registry/.

Mason stressed that gardens should have plants blooming in spring, summer and fall “so there’s something for each generation of butterflies to feed on.”

“There are three generations of monarchs that will live in Kansas between April and September,” he said.

Plants should be in a location that receives good sunlight and be sheltered so the butterflies are out of the wind.

Taylor said the focus of Monarch Watch is conservation.

“The issue of habitat loss seems to be snowballing,” he said. “We’ve been preaching the gospel of monarchs for a long time.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

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