Midwest is seeing more Monarch butterflies

By Joseph Dits

of The South Bend Tribune

But that could change as they still need your nectar-rich flowers
Does it seem that more monarch butterflies have been landing on your flowers this summer? Numbers of the flashy orange insect, known for its 3,000-mile migration to Mexico in late summer, are having an “extremely strong year,” said Doug Taron, who for 30 years has coordinated a survey of monarchs in Illinois and northwest Indiana.
That’s just based on initial reports from surveyors. The full data from the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, which reaches as far east as Porter County, hasn’t been collated, said Taron, chief curator of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago.
Still, he said, “It’s a great year to get out and see monarchs.”
Several factors could be playing in their favor.
Good rainfall in and around Texas this spring helped to grow plenty of nectar-producing flowers, which gave the monarchs lots of food to launch and migrate here, Taron said. They typically start to arrive in our part of the Midwest in May and then lay eggs. When they arrived, it helped that ample rainfall here also boosted the growth of flowers.
A lack of parasites also allows eggs to grow under the leaf of the only plant on which monarchs will lay eggs — the milkweed. The egg will hatch and grow into a caterpillar, which will eat the leaves and then morph into a butterfly.
It may feel like good news at a time when many reports point to an overall decline in monarchs and other pollinating insects. But, Taron cautioned, the yearly results could change.
“Their population levels fluctuate a lot from year to year,” he said of butterflies of all kinds, adding that there isn’t a regular up-and-down cycle.
Jill McDonald, of Niles, has been trolling the backroads for milkweed for about 20 years. Sticking close to the road so that she doesn’t disturb private land, she scans milkweed leaves for monarch eggs, which are white and no bigger than a pinhead. If you looked at the egg with a magnifying glass, she said, you’d see it come to a little point.
“I’m very aware of where chemicals are sprayed,” she said, wanting to collect healthy insects. She’s seen more eggs and caterpillars “by far than last year.”
She now has 20 caterpillars and four that are in a cocoon, known as the chrysalis stage as they’re turning into butterflies.
Once they’ve become adults, she tags them with a tiny, specially made sticker placed on a wing, that’s used to track them through a citizen science project called Monarch Watch. None of her tags has been found and reported yet, she said, though she hasn’t checked the database for a year.
McDonald said she’s helping to give these eggs and caterpillars a better chance of surviving to adulthood. Her bigger focus, though, is on sharing her work through educational programs as a part-time naturalist for St. Joseph County Parks and South Bend’s Rum Village Nature Center, along with other youth programs.
The biggest lesson is habitat. Studies have shown that monarchs and other pollinating insects, like the bees that enable several local crops to grow, have declined over the decades thanks to loss of habitat. Their survival relies on flowers that produce their food — nectar — which includes native species like milkweed, coneflowers, blazing stars, asters, goldenrod, zinnias and black-eyed Susans, along with lavender, marigolds and clover.
Flowers like petunias don’t offer much nectar. Besides, it isn’t a native species, hailing from South America.
Butterflies, moths and bees need these patches of the right flowers in the landscape, or “steppingstones,” said Cassie Majetic, an associate professor of biology at Saint Mary’s College whose specialty is floral odor and pollination.
“If you get rid of these, now the insect has to move further to get food,” Majetic said.
Farmers have sometimes removed lines of trees where wildflowers can also grow. Homes may be landscaped but lack the right flowers or may have chemically treated lawns without clover. Cities may remove green space, though they can still give pollinators small plantings of what they need.
If monarchs need milkweed to lay their eggs, do we have enough of the plant?
“That’s one of the big open questions,” Taron said, adding that it is still an abundant plant and that it pops up in tough urban landscapes along railroad embankments and chainlink fences.
A study last year found that 1.3 billion milkweed plants have been lost across the country. Taron said the problem with that number is that it makes it sound like the plants have been decimated when, in reality, it has spread out across several states. Whether or not there’s a dearth, he said, “You’re not going to do any harm by planting milkweed.”
In Iowa, an effort called Milkweed Matters has handed out tens of thousands of dirtballs with milkweed seeds to bicyclists on RAGBRAI, the massive weeklong ride across the state that is just finished last week. More than 10,000 riders take part each year in a route that changes, mostly riding past corn and soybean crops. They’re asked to toss the seedballs into the roadside ditches to grow.
In South Bend, Judy Frazier and kids in the youth program she started, We the Kids, passed out 11 milkweed plants and about 20 bags of milkweed seeds to raise awareness in June at WNIT Kids Club Day in the Park at St. Patrick’s County Park. Frazier is looking for another event to again pass out seeds.
Diana Mendelsohn, who organizes an annual Earth and Arbor Day event, had planned to give out milkweed seeds and show off a live butterfly this past Saturday at the Roseland Town Park.
While there may be overall declines of monarchs, Taron said that some reports are “more alarmist than I am comfortable with.” He helped to publish a research paper three years ago that analyzed monarch data in Mexico and the Midwest.
Mexico saw a significant decline, but he said, “We were not able to see a significant population decline up here in the summer.”
About three generations of monarchs live through our summer with two-week life spans, busily spent mating and laying more eggs. The eggs being laid now will hatch in August and become the monarchs that will migrate south. They will live much longer. Taron said the decrease in daylight reaches a certain point, causing more juvenile hormones to be secreted, which enables them to live about eight months and triggers the migration to Mexico.
By early September, you can watch monarchs fluttering south along the Lake Michigan shore as they start the 3,000-mile trip, one by one. Next spring, the same generation of monarchs will migrate north to Texas, where they will mate and lay eggs for another generation — the ones who will arrive here in May.