Butterfly Effect: The Case of the Missing Monarchs — and What You Can Do to Help

On Monday we were pretty jazzed about the birth of the future heir to the British throne, the son of Prince William and welly wearer/Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton. July 22 was also the birthday of one half of The Horticult: the original royal baby himself, Ryan Benoit.

But we’re a million times more anxious about the arrival of another monarch.


We spotted these two monarch butterflies in 2010 at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

When you Google “monarch butterfly,” you will be answered by some violently disturbing news results: “Monarch Butterflies Even More Elusive This Year.” “With Populations Threatened…” And simply: “Where Are All the Monarch Butterflies This Year?”

Indeed. Where the flap are all the monarch butterflies this year?

“This year’s monarch population is the lowest we’ve ever seen,” Chip Taylor, director of the nonprofit outreach program Monarch Watch, tells us by phone. “They’re losing a lot of their habitat due to extensive overuse of herbicides and pesticides.” He notes that the majority of our crop species are dependent on pollinators like Danaus plexippus, the monarch butterfly. “Pollinators keep everything together. It’s an unsustainable kind of decline.”

This year’s population is down by 80 percent from last year, according to Minnesota Public Radio. The loss of milkweed, the only plant the monarch caterpillar will eat, has played a large role in the decline.


Another shot from the Desert Botanical Garden. In addition to its milkweed habitat, monarchs rely on nectar plants for nourishment. In the topmost photo, a monarch visits a succulent flower in our yard.

Monarch Watch has a thorough explanation of the insect’s migratory and reproductive patterns, including notes on the monarch’s flight speeds and shockingly precise sense of time and direction.

Butterflies from west of the Rockies overwinter in California and migrate into Nevada, Colorado and Idaho. Those from east of the Rockies overwinter in Mexico (remember how they bend the oyamel fir trees with their collected weight?), and in successive generations push north to reproduce, stopping in Texas and later into the Midwest and Canada to lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed and a few other plants in the same family. Normally, at this point in the summer, the butterfly is a common sight in eastern Canada. In addition to the eradication of milkweed, predators, viruses, parasites and winter storms pose threats to the insect.

What can you do to help these black-and-amber beauties? Here are some ideas:

This fall, plant a “monarch way station” with milkweed and nectar sources. Monarch Watch has seed kits for those living east (e.g. common milkweed, purple coneflower, zinnia, dahlia mix) and west (e.g. narrowleaf milkweed, chia, tithonia torch, Mexican sunflower) of the Rockies. The organization has already sold 19,000 milkweed plugs alone this year, and plans to distribute another 4,000 in the fall. Fifty thousand plugs are planned for next year.

Become a monarch foster parent. Without your protection, caterpillars are easy marks for predators and parasites; My Monarch Guide shows you exactly how to create your very own B&B for pollinators.

Our Twitter friend Alison Haberstroh documents her adventures rearing five monarchs inside her San Diego home on her blog, Sowing by the Sea.


“They need the daily, natural light rhythms. Don’t place them next to a light left on all night,” Alison Haberstroh of Sowing by the Sea advises. And “when they form pupae, don’t touch!” Photo courtesy of Alison Haberstroh.

Raising monarch butterflies indoors

Mature butterflies prepare for flight time. Photo courtesy of Alison Haberstroh.

Raising monarch butterflies indoors

An “ample” supply of milkweed is also key, Alison says. Photo courtesy of Alison Haberstroh.

Monarch butterfly flight

Monarchs can travel between 50 and 100 miles daily. One tagged butterfly set the record of 265 miles flown in a day.

– Get familiar, and spread the word. Do a monarch dance. Support the conservation efforts of organizations like Monarch Butterfly Fund, Pollinator Partnership, Monarch Watch, Defenders of Wildlife and the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project. Because if we let our most iconic butterfly lose its habitat, what other living thing will be next to flutter away? —TH