Like many people in the Midwest, I was cheered this summer to observe many more Monarch butterflies than I have seen in many years!  

It has been one of the true joys of my summer. And a few weeks ago, it occurred to me to talk to the experts and pass what they told me along to Isthmus readers. I had to hurry because, as a news story, its value was nil once the Monarchs have all winged south, which they are doing rapidly. But the memory of their brilliant orange presence and the hope that their numbers continue to soar will warm my winter. Here’s the scoop.

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Monarch butterflies gathering to migrate at the Madison Audubon’s Goose Pond Sanctuary in Arlington. Photo Credit: ARLENE KOZIOL

Each fall, those wings carry Wisconsin’s migratory monarchs more than 1,500 miles to fir trees scattered over a few mountain tops in central Mexico. Their winter home has never been a very big area, according to Karen Oberhauser, director of the UW Arboretum and co-chair of Monarch Joint Venture, a national coalition of partners ranging in size from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to local nature centers.

During the winter of 1996-97, monarchs covered as much as 45 acres, but during the winter of 2013-14, all the monarchs from east of the Rockies fit in the space of a football field.

Since that frightening winter, their numbers have climbed back to what they were a decade and a half ago.

“There have been a couple of factors in their favor,” says Jennifer Thieme, regional monitoring coordinator of Monarch Joint Venture. Last winter, roosting monarchs covered almost 15 acres — more than have been recorded in over a decade. “That gave them a good kick-off this year,” she says.

Good weather during the past two breeding seasons has helped. The monarch you see in your backyard in September is the great-great grandchild of the previous spring’s first returning monarchs. If this youngster survives its journey and the winter in Mexico, it will head north next spring, and may get as far as Kansas, laying eggs along the way. The next generation moves farther north before laying its eggs.

“In 2018, especially March and April, we had really warm temperatures in the southern U.S.,” says Thieme. “The returning monarchs reproduced well down there, and we’ve had similar beneficial weather patterns for reproduction this year. There is a lot of mortality during fall migration, so spring and summer is their chance to recover.”

Monarchs face their worst peril when one bad year follows another. If monarch numbers are low when a storm hits their wintering colonies, or if there is a summer drought in the upper Midwest, they are at great risk.

Modern agricultural practices have greatly reduced most monarch habitat including the milkweed plants that monarchs need to survive. Several individuals and organizations are working to protect and expand that kind of environment to help the butterflies survive.

“That’s helping them,” says Oberhauser. “If we have plentiful habitat here, in bad years when their numbers are low, it’s more likely they will encounter milkweed, which allows them to lay more eggs. Monarchs co-evolved with milkweed, and it’s the only thing their caterpillars recognize as food.”

Oberhauser urges people who want to help monarchs to check out the Wisconsin Monarch Collaborative.  It maintains a list of recommended plants for people looking to make monarch-friendly changes to their landscape, as well as providing information on supporting organizations that are preserving habitat or coordinating citizen science data collection.

“What we want,” says Oberhauser, “is for the monarch numbers we’ve been seeing this summer to be the long-term average and not just a temporary peak.”

See the original story here.

Have you seen more?

I’d love to hear about your experience.

1 reply

  1. In Houston the Monarchs showed up earlier this year then I remember before. There were definitely more than the last number of years. I did not realize how few they had become until this years uptick. It’s fun to see them floating around.
    Thanks for the info. 🙂

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