A Milkweed Railroad for Monarch Butterflies

I will never forget that sun-washed September day back in the 1970s, when a Monarch butterfly landed on my finger and hung on there trustingly, resting its gaudy black-and-white polka-dotted abdomen on my warm skin.

close-up-of-monarch-butterfly-on-fingerA girl of about ten, dreamy and prone to tree-climbing and rock-sitting, I froze and observed the butterfly’s gorgeous gleaming wings, which beat back and forth slowly as it perched; and then, to my great delight, it unfurled its long, slim black tongue and began gently probing my skin, daintily sipping the beads of sweat it found there.

After a few minutes, it gave a carefree beat of its wings and caught an updraft over to a nearby stand of purple asters.  I watched it with delight, wishing it luck and Godspeed on its long migration south to Mexico, which I knew about thanks to my avid reading of Ranger Rick and National Wildlife.

Many years later, my son, also a keen observer of the natural world, brought a Monarch butterfly caterpillar that he’d found on a stand of milkweed home to munch milkweed on our kitchen counter.

UnknownWe watched, fascinated, as the caterpillar hung itself upside down in a J-form from a branch of milkweed.  Overnight, the soft striped body of the caterpillar hardened into a glossy green cocoon, and its the rear feet solidified into a strong stem, firmly cemented to the branch.

The cocoon hung quietly, quivering now and then as the mysterious transformation took place inside.

One morning we began to see the familiar black and orange outlines of the Monarch wings coming into view just beneath the green wall of the cocoon, now turning translucent.

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“You’d better put it outside,” I told my son.  “We don’t want it to hatch in the house!”

He put the vase with the milkweed and the trembling cocoon out on the porch, and we left for work and school.  By the time we came back, the miracle had occurred—the cocoon had been abandoned, and the beautiful Monarch had sailed away regally, following its destiny.

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This year not a single Monarch butterfly visited our garden, although I planted two butterfly bushes for them, and a stand of Asclepias, a whole bed full of bee balm, phlox and asters, and even left a few stubborn stalks of milkweed growing up through my roses.

“Did you see any Monarchs?” my son and I kept asking each other, knowing the answer but still hopeful.

No.

This is how extinction happens.  One year, a beloved species just doesn’t show up.  Life goes on.  But a hole opens  in the tightly stitched fabric of the ecosystem.  When there are enough holes like this, the whole fabric begins to unravel.

Jim Robbins wrote last Sunday in The New York Times:

Monarch butterflies on tree trunks

Monarch butterflies turn the forest orange. They return to a specific mountain forest in Michoacan, Mexico, year after year.

“On the first of November, when Mexicans celebrate a holiday called the Day of the Dead, some also celebrate the millions of monarch butterflies that, without fail, fly to the mountainous fir forests of central Mexico on that day. They are believed to be souls of the dead, returned.

“This year, for or the first time in memory, the monarch butterflies didn’t come, at least not on the Day of the Dead. They began to straggle in a week later than usual, in record-low numbers. Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year.”

Why are the butterflies disappearing?  It’s not just the Monarchs, although these large, showy insects are among the most beloved.  I saw very few butterflies of any stripe in my garden last summer.

As with the precipitous decline in the wild bee population, the culprit is industrial agriculture.

Butterflies rely on wildflowers for their bread and butter during the summer breeding months.  For Monarchs, milkweed is especially crucial.

tam_map_webThe long route from the Mexican forest where they winter to their North American breeding grounds used to be lushly planted with native wildflowers like milkweed.  No single butterfly makes the round-trip from Mexico up to my garden in New England.  Rather, each generation lives long enough to lay its eggs on a convenient stand of milkweed, and those caterpillars hatch, eat their milkweed, cocoon and turn into butterflies to carry the migration on.

It’s a mysterious, miraculous process, the knowledge of the route handed down across scores, perhaps hundreds of generations each season, year after year for untold millennia.

And then human beings invented Round-up.

agriculture-impact-climate-change-monoculture-farm-photoThe tragic decline, not just in the Monarch population but in all our native insects, can be traced directly to the use of chemicals in agriculture.  The herbicide Round-up, sprayed indiscriminately on the ever-spreading farmlands of the American Midwest, kills everything except those seeds genetically engineered to withstand it.

That is, it kills everything a butterfly would need to survive.

Thanks to Round-up and all the other pesticides, herbicides and fungicides used in American agriculture—combined with suburban sprawl, golf courses, lawns, malls and parking lots—much of the U.S. has become an ecological desert, from a butterfly’s point of view.

And without the butterflies and other insects, the bird populations crash too.

The bats die off.  The run-off from these poisoned fields kills the frogs and toads.  And before we know it, that one small hole left by the disappearance of the Monarchs has turned into a gaping, hemorrhaging wound from which there is no recovery.

What can we do?

Hawthorne Valley Farm, Ghent NY--biodynamic & organic

Hawthorne Valley Farm, Ghent NY–biodynamic & organic

One thing we can do as consumers is to support organic agriculture as much as we possibly can.  Yes, it’s more expensive, but think of those extra pennies as a donation to the Save the Bees, Birds and Butterflies effort.

You can also think of buying organic as an investment in your own health.  Pesticides and herbicides build up in our bodies too—we’re at the top of the food chain after all, just like the eagles and hawks who were dying from DDT back when that poison was still being sprayed on the fields.

It’s no accident that we have a cancer epidemic in America today.  What goes around comes around.

We can also be more thoughtful in how we compose our landscapes.  Those of us who are fortunate enough to have green space around our homes can get rid of grass lawns, which are green deserts to butterflies, and plant vegetable and flower beds instead.

05517F2I often find Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars munching away on my dill in the early summer, and I’m happy to share my crop with them.

Even the big tomato hornworm, which can chomp through a whole tomato branch in a single day, is cause for celebration in my backyard, especially now that I know they turn into the spectacular sphinx moth, a daytime moth so big and fast I’ve sometimes mistaken it for a hummingbird.

Imagine a Milkweed Railroad for the Monarchs, running from their winter home in Mexico all the way up to the far reaches of their breeding grounds in Canada.

Stands of milkweed would be planted in every park in every town along the way, so that wherever the butterflies spiraled down from the high updrafts that carry them along the ancient migratory route, there would be milkweed waiting to host their eggs, feed their caterpillars and provide sturdy stalks for their cocoons.

This is not a dream.  This is how it used to be, until the last few decades when human sprawl and wanton chemical use got out of hand.

What humans broke, we can fix.  We just need to set our hearts and minds to the task of repairing the holes in the fabric of our beautiful planet.  And in tending to the planet, we’ll be tending to ourselves.

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27 Comments

  1. Dr Browdy: Thank you for a most beautiful article on the monarchs and milkweeds. I’m grateful to my dear friend Harriet Shugarman @ClimateMama for alerting me via a tweet. You have a lovely writing style and I’m “on board” with the idea of a North American railroad of milkweed from Canada to Mexico!

    Your readers might wish to know about a program sponsored by Monarch Watch dot org called “Monarch Waystations” and “Bring Back the Monarchs”. Waystations are simply butterfly gardens that include species of milkweeds for the monarchs. Lots of great info on the Asclepias species as well as nectar plant species at their webpages, as well as on the FB page, Milkweeds for Monarch Waystations.

    Looking forward to your future posts!

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  November 23, 2013

      The idea of way stations is very much in line with what I was thinking of as the milkweed railroad, taking my inspiration from the underground railroads that safeguarded the escaping enslaved folks up north to freedom. Why not create way stations in every park in America?! It could be a boy/girl scout project, a community service project for schools in conjunction with biology classes. Why not?!

      Reply
      • Anna

         /  November 23, 2013

        Good mission project for church youth groups too, one that would raise consciousness about the stress factors adversely affecting the earth’s insect pollinators. Many kids, even teens, are living in a vacuum and are clueless about this subject. I think young people have every right to be informed about environmental issues and ought to have opportunities to become better stewards of the planet.

  2. Anna

     /  November 23, 2013

    Beautiful concept, Jennifer!

    In the 70’s and 80’s, I enjoyed working on Bargello needlework designs. I would sew my completed canvases to fabric backs to make decorative pillows. The pillows were a labor of love as they took much forethought and time. Most of them were made as gifts for family and close friends.

    These days, in these times, I always pass when tempted to start similar projects. I can’t imagine allowing myself the luxury of working on Bargello designs with the same enthusiasm I once had. But contributing to a common goal of planting a milkweed railroad is a wonderful way to create a tapestry of great value — for the good of the ecosystem and us all.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  November 23, 2013

      Yes, I think there is an urgency about the times we are living through that demands our attention and energy. There is no time to be self-indulgent any more. We must focus, be purposeful, be resourceful, think and plan ahead. And do good wherever and whenever opportunities arise.

      Reply
  3. That’s a Queen and not a Monarch on your finger. All butterflies are suffering due to climate change. Change change is worse than not having enough habitat.
    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/11/22/2984371/butterfly-study-climate-change/
    Climate Change Is Messing Up Butterfly’s Flight Seasons

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  November 23, 2013

      Hard to rank the challenges that all species are facing today…I have also been reading about the weakening of the earth’s magnetic field, which is hard on the “navigation systems” of migrating insects and birds. Let’s face it, we’re living in tough times.

      Reply
  4. Paul Cherubini

     /  November 23, 2013

    The GMO farmlands of the upper Midwest are actually great places to see lots of monarchs and other pollinators. Like these monarchs I filmed last August in southern Minnesota next to a huge field of Roundup Ready soybeans: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckNudPFvg3w

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  November 23, 2013

      Yes, as long as the natural hedgerows are maintained it’s OK–that’s the “railroad” effect for the butterflies….

      Reply
    • GMO farmlands of the upper Midwest are doused with higher and higher doses of pesticides because the weeds and bugs are increasingly resistant to Roundup Ready.
      http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/blogs/attack-of-the-superweeds/
      This will in the end also wipe out the few monarch that actually manage it to reach a Midwest soybeans field.

      Reply
      • Paul Cherubini

         /  November 24, 2013

        Mato, many city folks believe the GMO farmlands are hopelessly contaminated with pesticides or will be in the future and so they have no interest in growing more milkweed for monarchs along the field edges of the GMO crops. They believe planting milkweeds in home gardens is sufficient to stabilize the monarch decline. But it’s not even close to being sufficient and so monarch numbers will continue to decline. Farmers on the other hand know that the GMO field margins can be teaming with butterflies like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGZEkLONqPk

  5. Great post – I was thinking of doing one like this as this is EXACTLY the kind of message we need to get out to the public. I don’t think things are as bad here in Canada in terms of agricultural practices, but they seem to be getting there as there have been reports of large numbers of bees dying off due to neonicotinoids.

    However, the vast expanse of farmlands in the middle of the US is a greater problem as it forms a very real barrier to the monarchs that are trying to fly north. Think of trying to cross the desert on foot with only one bag of food and then realizing there are no stores in the desert to buy more. You run out of energy, succumb to the elements, and die. This is the situation the monarchs face, only they also need milkweeds to lay eggs on so the next generation can continue the journey. If people and cities planted milkweeds in their gardens and green spaces, it would help the situation from becoming dire.

    Reply
    • Paul Cherubini

       /  November 24, 2013

      Gillian, like Mato, you do not understand that the GMO monocultures of the upper Midwest USA are teaming with monarchs along the field edges because that’s where milkweed grows. Like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MqrvAxTl0I

      Reply
      • Paul, how big of an area in the upper midwest are you talking about? How much milkweed grows along the field edges? That video explained nothing. I saw one butterfly at the edge of one field with only a very small percentage of milkweed among the vegetation – hardly enough to support breeding butterflies. And that video was taken in 2011, when populations were already being to decline. Wintering numbers can be found here:

        http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/monarch/PopulationMexicoAnalyzeGraph.html

        While it is good to know that farmers are leaving some milkweed around their fields, we are going to need a lot more milkweed than that along the monarch’s entire migration route in order to sustain the population.

      • Paul Cherubini

         /  November 24, 2013

        Gillian there are hundreds of thousands of miles worth of mostly gravel farm road ditches in the upper Midwest where milkweed grows next to the GMO crops. Example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AS7xnDRGYjk

      • According to this article, the problem is that the milkweed growing BETWEEN the rows of GMO crops is now gone, leaving over 120 million acres barren: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/14/science/earth/monarch-migration-plunges-to-lowest-level-in-decades.html?_r=1&

        This leaves only the milkweeds growing at the edges of the fields and next to the gravel roads, and from all the videos you have posted, there appear to be very few milkweed plants around to support all the caterpillars that develop from the numerous eggs laid by the females stopping by.

        An excerpt from the article:

        The American Midwest’s corn belt is a critical feeding ground for monarchs, which once found a ready source of milkweed growing between the rows of millions of acres of soybean and corn. But the ubiquitous use of herbicide-tolerant crops has enabled farmers to wipe out the milkweed, and with it much of the butterflies’ food supply.

        “That habitat is virtually gone. We’ve lost well over 120 million acres, and probably closer to 150 million acres,” Mr. Taylor said.

        A rapid expansion of farmland — more than 25 million new acres in the United States since 2007 — has eaten away grasslands and conservation reserves that supplied the monarchs with milkweed, he said.

        * * * * * * * * * * * *

        It seems clear that the more milkweed way stations and railroads we can create, the better off the butterflies will be.

      • Paul Cherubini

         /  November 24, 2013

        The milkweed growing between the rows was eliminated back in 2006-2007 yet enough milkweed remains at the edges of the fields and next to the gravel roads to produce so many monarchs that numerous evening cluster sites can be found like these I filmed in southern Minnesota I filmed in 2010 and 2011:





  6. Your writing is indeed beautiful and inspiring, your suggestions to support organic agriculture and change the lawns to vegetable and flower beds are right to the point!

    I would also have included suggestions to decrease ones environmental impact by diminishing the personal consumption of energy and resources, but you probably have made such suggestions in many of your previous posts.

    I only object to the last paragraph, starting with: “What humans broke, we can fix.” This could give the impression, that human-caused environmental destruction can be undone with some clever tricks and that the necessary measures will not need drastic changes of our lifestyle and never will threaten the personal comfort level.

    I’m sure that you didn’t mean it that way, I am sure that in your heart you follow St. Francis of Assisi and Mahatma Gandhi and that you, if you did not already implemented it, are at least aspiring a modest and efficient lifestyle with the least possible environmental impact.

    Please tell me that it is so, please tell me that you try to be a role model, to erase any possibly remaining doubts about the link between writing and actual conduct.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  November 24, 2013

      Good to hear from you, Mato! I have been inspired by your descriptions of creating your natural oasis with your vegetable gardens, and yes, as I indicated in the post, I have taken up almost all the lawn on my property and devoted it to vegetable and flower beds with butterflies, birds, toads and other forest friends in mind.

      I do not subscribe to the idea of technological “fixes”–not at all. That is why the URL of my blog is “be the change”–and the changes we need are deep and fundamental indeed–

      In solidarity–
      Jennifer

      Reply
  7. Thank you for your article. I have been handing out common milkweed plants to my community for a decade now. Simply by inviting friends and the public into my backyard to walk through my suburban Chicago milkweed garden, I have seen men and women turn into monarch advocates. I wrote a book called “Raising Monarchs: Caring for One of God’s Graceful Creatures” to capture the wonder of the monarchs. If I can use this book in any way to help promote the monarch cause, please let me know. http://BackyardButterflies.com

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  November 26, 2013

      Thank you, Sue! This is the kind of project that needs to be taken up by communities all along the “railroad” route. A national organization like Sierra Club or National Wildlife Federation would be an ideal sponsor. But Boy/Girl Scouts could be really good too! I am not sure how to make it happen–concrete suggestions very welcome! I am happy to know about your book.

      Reply
  8. You really stuck a chord here and it goes to show that when the environmental damage is stated in relationship to something that people really love, they respond.
    The Monarchs, like the bees, are the canaries in the coal mine. I think we all know this, and yet we fail to act.
    I love the idea of a Monarch Railroad, and not just as a project for students. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get thousands (millions!) of Americans to plant milkweeds in their yards. I believe that when people do a small thing to help repair our damaged ecosystem, it results in their being more aware and concerned. Since solving this problem will take a widespread change of consciousness, simple actions that cause people to feel empowered are very useful. Or at least, that’s my current theory.
    Jan

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  November 26, 2013

      Yes, wouldn’t it be great?! How to make it happen is the question, it really needs some kind of national campaign. I so agree with you, the more specific and local we can make environmental issues, the more people understand and respond.

      Reply
  9. Here’s a neat new Kickstarter effort that went live at Thanksgiving… and will be fund-raising until Dec 26. Delightful 4 minute video and accompanying text reveals big plans… Many diverse efforts will be needed to save the monarch migration but this particular one touches my heart…

    Reply
  10. Paul Cherubini

     /  December 3, 2013

    A critical question no one has been asking is: If these milkweed railroad, kickstarter, etc. programs had been implemented 20 years ago what effect would they have had on the monarch population declines we have seen since then? Answer: A negligibly beneficial effect because many billions of milkweed plants in the wild have been destroyed over the past 20 years and billions remain, but all the milkweed planting projects combined would have added just 10,000’s worth of milkweeds. 100,000’s at the most. Literally a drop in the bucket amount of extra milkweed.

    Reply
  11. Debi

     /  December 23, 2013

    I say we try no matter what – to abandon hope is not an option! This year my neighbor and I managed to raise and tag around 200 monarchs in the fall – that’s 200 from two yards in the suburbs of Lebanon, Ohio. There are two plants that seemed to make a difference: Tithonia (Torch) also known as Mexican sunflower AND Asclepias curassavica (annual milkweed). Both plants are started from seed. The Tithonia was their favorite nectar source and the annual milkweed attracted continual egg laying over a period of one month. I collect the eggs and raise the caterpillars in a mesh tent. I realize that we want to use the native, wild milkweed and I do agree with that approach. However, in addition to native milkweed, this annual milkweed is a life-saver.

    Reply
  12. George

     /  February 2, 2014

    Milkweed around here doesn’t grow IN a field of something else, it grows AS a field of milkweed. When I was a kid, we had about an acre of milkweeds in my neighborhood with tons of monarch every year. The field is now a softball park and not a single monarch in sight. There are plenty of other wildlands, but no milkweed fields.
    In other words, it’s not farming and roundup, it’s development.

    Reply

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