All summer long, the refrain from readers on the Birds & Blooms Facebook page was the same… where are the monarchs? Over and over, butterfly gardeners from Missouri to Minnesota to Massachusetts wondered, “Am I doing something wrong this year? Why haven’t there been any monarchs on my milkweed?”
The sad answer is this: Nope, you weren’t doing anything wrong. There simply weren’t very many monarchs around this summer in the eastern half of the U.S. The reason is actually a combination of factors that started well over a year ago.
2012 Drought: Last summer, a massive drought across the middle of the country caused milkweed to suffer, and monarchs suffered along with it. Without this plant, monarchs can’t reproduce. This led to…
Extremely Low Wintering Numbers: Over the winter of 2012 – 2013, the overwintering population in Mexico reached an all-time low. The numbers are pretty staggering, actually – the winter population was a shocking 80% below normal. An average year sees about 350 million overwintering monarchs. The winter of 2012-2013 saw only about 60 million.
A Cold Spring: As if this weren’t enough, the monarch population suffered another blow in the spring of 2013. The monarchs completed their spring migration back to Texas, where generally this generation mates, lays eggs, and dies. This new generation was met this past spring with unusually cold temperatures late into the season, meaning this monarch population was slow to grow, mature, and continue the journey north. Ultimately, it led to many fewer monarchs making the migration journey, and even fewer of them completing the trip as far north as southern Canada, where they usually top out.
So, no, you weren’t alone if you didn’t see much in the way of monarchs this summer. They suffered a sort of “perfect storm”, making them rare in much of their eastern range in the summer of 2013.
NOTE: Monarch populations in other areas, such as California and Florida, fortunately have not reported such dramatic losses in the past year. These monarchs have their own migratory patterns (if they migrate at all) and so have not been as severely affected by the factors listed above.
What Can We Do?
Butterfly gardeners everywhere want to know… what can we do to help? The answer is: keep doing what you’re doing, and get more folks to do it too! If you’re creating a monarch-friendly environment in your garden, with lots of nectar plants and milkweed, and no pesticides or other chemicals, you’re doing the right thing. Encourage neighbors and friends to do it too. Get a local school or community to plan a butterfly garden for 2014, and fill it with native milkweed.
The citizen science site Journey North has been tracking monarch populations and migrations for years, and is an incredibly valuable source of info. Anyone who loves monarchs and wants to help should visit this site regularly for resources and to help them gather data.
Fall 2013 Migration
This year’s migration is already underway, with folks reporting monarchs gathering in larger and larger numbers as they head south. If you live along the migration path (and that’s really anyone east of the Rocky Mountains), you can help them complete the journey south by keeping your garden full of nectar flowers. Monarchs must feed continuously throughout their journey to make the long trek, so keep your garden full and happy until the first frost. Gardens in Texas are especially valuable, since most migrating monarchs will funnel through here on their way to Mexico over the next few weeks.
You can learn more about the decline of the monarch population, both recent and on-going, on the Journey North site. Educate yourself about the issues, and then spread the word about the need for butterfly gardeners to help out. Monarchs are down, but most certainly not out! Join in the fight to help them survive.