By: Gwen Roth
I’m sure many of you have heard about pollinators and their importance in our food production and ecosystems. Birds, Bats, Bees, Butterflies, Moths, Wasps and many others are crucial in the pollination process. Through pollination, these faunae help plants to create food, fiber & oil, prevent soil erosion and even sequester carbon. But many pollinator populations are declining and scientists give a variety of reasons for the decline – habitat destruction (including feeding and nesting sites), pesticide use, disease and even changes in the climate.
While there are thousands, maybe millions of pollinators around the globe, I think one of the most amazing pollinators is the Monarch Butterfly. They have such a unique life cycle and migration story. Since it’s a cycle, we’ll start the story in the winter, where Monarchs spend the winter months gathered in forests located in the mountains of Central Mexico. Once spring arrives, they begin to fly north toward the United States, mate and lay eggs before dying. The egg will then hatch into a caterpillar, where it will grow for a couple weeks eating only Milkweed, a plant that is toxic to most other animals. After a few weeks as a caterpillar, the Monarch will form a chrysalis and transform into an adult butterfly, a process which takes about 10-14 days. The adult butterfly will then continue its migration northward where it will mate, deposit eggs on the milkweed plant and die. This process continues for 3-4 life cycles until late summer or early fall when the Monarchs are triggered by daylight and temperature changes to complete the journey back to Mexico, sometimes traveling more than 2,000 miles! This 4th generation of Monarch Butterflies is often called the Super Generation because they can live as an adult for up to eight or nine months. Most adult monarchs in the summer live for only 3-5 weeks - yes, weeks! This super generation will return to the same overwintering sites in Mexico (where they have never been) and spend the next several months before beginning the journey north, mating, depositing eggs and dying - beginning the cycle all over again!
For the last several decades, the Monarch’s population numbers have decreased, and many scientists believe this is due to a lack of milkweed plants as well as habitat fragmentation and weather phenomena. In December, scientists will do their annual count of the overwintering population and we will know more about the Monarch’s overall population health.
For your part, you can certainly help the Monarch Butterfly and other pollinators by doing a few simple things around your home: