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Monarch butterflies are now an endangered species. What Is Really Killing Monarch Butterflies?

A beloved visitor to summer gardens is officially an endangered species. 

Yesterday (July 21, 2022), scientists with the International Union for Conservation of Nature issued a decision, placing the beloved migratory monarch butterfly on its Red List list of endangered species. They said the butterflies – like all the 147,517 species on the Red List, of which 41,459 are endangered – are threatened primarily by habitat destruction and climate change.

But why are monarch butterflies important?

Monarch butterflies offer the world much more than just their beauty. Monarch butterflies are pollinators. Pollinators like monarchs play a vital role in the natural ecosystem and our food system. Without pollinators, the world around us would not be the same. But sadly, for many years the population of many pollinators has been rapidly declining.

What Do Monarch Butterflies Do For The Environment?

Monarch butterflies are pollinators. Like bees, monarch butterflies help flowering plants through the pollination process. When they stop on a flower to sip on the nectar, the flower dusts pollen onto the butterfly. As it moves from flower to flower to consume nectar, the pollen that was dusted on the monarch is transferred to the next plant — leading to pollination! 

But aside from pollinating calendula, yarrow, and other flowers, monarchs play another important role in the environment. They are a critical part of the food web. That’s right — monarchs are a food source for birds, other insects, and small animals. 

Why Monarch Butterflies are Endangered?

The loss of milkweed plants, winter habitat, and climate change are all pushing monarchs to the brink. The monarch butterfly is now declared as endangered  by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global leading authority on the status of biological diversity. But they are not extinct yet. The three key factors previously listed are the main reason these butterflies are barely hanging on.

  • Loss of milkweed
    • Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Milkweed is the only plant that monarch caterpillars depend on for sustenance. Unfortunately, milkweed is often eradicated because it is considered a weed. Large-scale farms, urbanization, and an increased use of herbicides are all contributing to the lack of milkweed.
  • Winter habitat loss
    • Harsh weather, deforestation, and continued development have rapidly shrunk monarch’s winter habitat. These vibrant butterflies make their migration to California and Mexico, but with only a few locations left to gather, their population continues to decrease.
  • Climate Change
    • Climate change impacts many species in the environment. With an increase in extreme storms, severe weather swings, and other torrential weather events, monarchs have seen deadly consequences.

With monarch butterflies in trouble, there’s no time to waste to help conservation efforts. To give you a glimpse at just how severe the monarch population decline is: in 2017 there were 200,000 monarchs that gathered in California. In 2020, less than 2,000 were counted. 

Where Do Monarch Butterflies Live?

Monarch butterflies can be found across the globe. They live in North, South, and Central America. They also have been found in Australia, Western Europe, India, and some Pacific Islands. 

Within the United States, monarch butterflies are split into two populations — the eastern population and the western population.

The eastern population of monarch butterflies travel extensive distances between their summer breeding grounds and their winter habitat. In the summer, they can be found as far north as Canada. They then migrate to the mountains of Central Mexico.

The western population of monarch butterflies also travel extensive distances. Their summer grounds also reach southern Canada, but instead of migrating to Mexico, this population migrates to coastal California. 

When Do Monarchs Migrate?

Monarchs make one of the most impressive migrations of any species of animal. They fly thousands of miles from all over the United States and southern Canada to their winter grounds in Mexico and coastal California. At the weight of less than a paperclip, it makes the feat even more impressive!

So when do monarchs migrate? The great migration begins in September and goes through October. Other butterflies can overwinter in colder climates, but monarchs are not able to withstand the cold. They make a two-way migration and use environmental cues as an indicator for when to travel. This is why climate change plays such a harmful role in their lives — the temperature swings can have a drastic impact on their migration. 

Unlike birds and other migratory species, there’s something extra special about the monarch migration. It takes numerous generations of monarchs to make one migration in the United States and Canada. 

Monarch Lifecycle

The monarch butterfly has four stages of its life cycle:

  • Stage 1: The egg
  • Stage 2: The caterpillar
  • Stage 3: The pupa (chrysalis)
  • Stage 4: The butterfly

But did you know that four generations of butterflies go through these stages in a year?

  • February-March
    • The first-generation Stage 4 butterflies come out of hibernation to find a mate
    • They migrate north to find a suitable place to lay their eggs
    • This starts Stage 1 for the next generation
  • March-April
    • The eggs are laid on milkweed and then hatch into baby caterpillars (Stage 2)
    • In four days, the monarch eggs hatch
    • The caterpillar eats milkweed for two weeks until it is fully grown
    • It then starts the process of metamorphosis and transforms itself into a chrysalis (Stage 3)
    • The chrysalis only lasts 10 days before the pupa makes the remarkable change into a butterfly (Stage 4 – second generation)
    • Stage 4 butterflies only live two to six weeks
  • May and June
    • The second generation of monarchs lays their eggs 
    • The eggs follow the same four stages of the life cycle
  • July and August
    • The third generation of monarchs lay their eggs
    • These eggs go through the same life cycle stages as their predecessors
  • September and October
    • This is where things begin to change! The eggs that were laid in September and October go through the same stages as the generations before. But the Stage 4 butterflies do not die after two to six weeks.
    • These monarchs migrate to the warmer climates where they live for six to eight months. Then, then process begins again.

The monarchs that are making the great migration to warmer climates are the great grandchildren of the ones who previously made the long journey!

What Would Happen If Monarch Butterflies Went Extinct?

These beautiful pollinators have been on Earth about 175 million years from what we can gather from fossils. Beyond the splendor that would be lost from the world if monarch butterflies went extinct, there would be ripple effects in the environment. 

Monarchs share their habitat with many other species of insects and birds. The birds would lose a food source, and their decline is the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” for other pollinators. If other pollinators decline like monarchs, it could have impacts on the food that humans rely on.  

How you can help

To help monarch butterflies fend off extinction, consider doing the following:

Build a pollinator garden: A simple, native flower garden with milkweed will attract butterflies to your yard and help them stay healthy. In addition to nectar from flowers, monarch butterflies need milkweed to survive, so if you notice the leaves on your milkweed have been chomped, it’s a great sign!

Care for a butterfly in your own yard: A female adult butterfly can lay about 400 eggs, and of those 400 eggs, only about eight live to become adult butterflies. One hands-on way to give monarchs a better chance at survival is by collecting the eggs or caterpillars and raising them in protected net cages until the butterfly emerges.  Follow these steps.

Plant pesticide-free.

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