Have you ever watched a monarch get drunk on nectar in your yard? I just did, and boy, is that a beautiful sight.
Monarchs, as you may know, are in trouble. Donald Lewis, Iowa State University professor of entomology, recently posted a plaintive article on the loss of habitat with an article entitled, “Where Have All the Monarchs Gone, Long Time Passing?”
In it, he says that by some estimates, half of the overwintering monarchs that go to Mexico in the fall come from the Midwest. But milkweeds, the food source for monarch caterpillars, are disappearing. The monarch population last winter in Mexico was 1/20th what it was 16 years ago.
Laura Jesse, of the Iowa State University Plant & Insect Diagnostic Clinic, also posted her reflections. “I was recently releasing a monarch butterfly that I had reared from a caterpillar when I was struck with the realization that I may be witnessing the end of something,” she writes.
It’s hard to believe that could be true. I remember that milkweeds used to be virtually everywhere, especially rural ditches. Thousands of little white “parachutes” with a tiny rider of a seed attached floated everywhere at this time of year.
A 2012 study on Insect Conservation and Diversity by John M. Pleasants and Karen S. Oberhauser concludes that milkweed loss in agricultural fields is due to herbicide use, and the decline of milkweeds has had a devastating effect on the monarch butterfly population: “We estimate that there has been a 58% decline in milkweeds on the Midwest landscape and an 81% decline in monarch production in the Midwest from 1999 to 2010. Monarch production in the Midwest each year was positively correlated with the size of the subsequent overwintering population in Mexico. Taken together, these results strongly suggest that a loss of agricultural milkweeds is a major contributor to the decline in the monarch population.”
So I am planting milkweeds next year, and you should, too. The caterpillars only feed on milkweeds.
And without the caterpillars, we don’t get to enjoy this time of year, when my smooth asters (Aster laevis ‘Bluebird’) open up and the monarchs belly up to the bar, clutching those small lavender stars (did you know that the word aster means star?) like it is the nectar of the gods.
For so it is. Plant some milkweed and some smooth asters next spring. You’ll be so glad. And they will, too.