Monarchs are in peril but Okies can help
Save the butterflies. Plant some milkweed.
This year's winter count of monarchs in Mexico is down after the population experienced a small uptick last season. As the monarchs' annual spring migration north from Mexico begins, Oklahomans can play a part in saving them by planting milkweed, the plant on which butterflies lay their eggs during the migration.
"Mother monarch will only lay their eggs on milkweed," said Mary Waller, state director of Okies for Monarchs. "It is the only plant a monarch caterpillar can eat."
Oklahoma is in the middle of the migration route between Mexico and the United States. Whether you have a ranch, farm or an urban garden, everyone can pitch in in the effort to help provide the fuel for monarchs on their journey by planting milkweed, Waller said.
"The number one thing Oklahomans can do is plant milkweed and stop using pesticides,” she said.
Butterflies, bees and other insects are on the decline around the world, according to studies. The reasons are many, according to scientists, including habitat changes wrought by humans, catastrophic weather events, invasive species, parasites, diseases and deforestation.
The decline of prairies, open pastureland and other areas where weedy plants like wildflowers grow is partly to blame along with the use of chemicals like herbicides and pesticides in agriculture practices.
"It's not just monarchs," Waller said. "We are talking about all pollinators."
The monarch population has seen an 80 to 90 percent drop over the past two decades. Monarchs need a very large population size in order to be resilient to threats from severe weather events, pesticides and climate change, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled to announce in December whether butterflies should be listed as a threatened or endangered species, Waller said.
The population decline of the butterflies led more than 40 conservation organizations to form the Oklahoma Monarch & Pollinator Collaborative in 2016. Two years later, the collaborative started Okies for Monarchs, a public education campaign to spread the word about the plight of the butterflies and what can be done to help.
The Okies for Monarchs website, okiesformonarchs.org, includes a list of plants people can grow to help butterflies and other pollinators, along with a list of places where they can be purchased. The site also features stories from people who have established butterfly gardens.
The website includes a new downloadable tool for rangelands owners and managers to use if they need an idea of “how to get started” helping restore native habitat and support pollinators at okiesformonarchs.org/rangelands.
Oklahomans can seed milkweed before winter, or very early in the spring, or buy plants and put them directly in the ground, Waller said. Native flowering plants should be planted around the milkweed for a balanced ecosystem, she said.
When buying plants, consumers should be careful not to buy those that have been pre-treated with chemicals or buy soil that has pesticides mixed in, Waller said.
“Anybody can do something to help," she said. "Every amount of native nectaring plants we put out there is beneficial.”
During the spring migration north, three generations of monarchs will breed, live for two to three weeks, and then die before the fourth generation of butterflies decides it's time to begin the trip south to Mexico, Waller said.
"In the fall, some biological signal tells them to turn around and come south," she said. "Scientists believe it is probably the angle of the sun that is their cue.”
That fourth generation of monarchs then returns to the same roosting trees of their ancestors where they huddle in giant clusters and hibernate for the winter, Waller said. Monarchs can travel 300 miles a day, and the journey from beginning to end is about 3,000 miles, she said.
"Frankly, it's miraculous," Waller said.