A monarch butterfly floats by and a child’s face lights up. Viewing the semi-annual monarch butterfly migration causes adult jaws to drop. To both young and old, the beautiful monarch butterfly is one of the most recognized and beloved of all insects. They are studied in school and their habits are watched intensely by both professional and citizen scientists. We take for granted their jumping from flower to flower in our gardens or fluttering about open natural areas of the United States as their appearance announces the arrival of warmer weather. Their long-term survival, however, is being studied as concerns arise and become more prevalent about threats to the monarch butterfly’s existence.
Monarch Butterfly Migration
As birds do every year, fly south in the winter and back north in the spring, the monarch butterfly does the same. They are the only butterfly to do such. Unlike other butterflies that can adapt to the cold northern winters, monarch butterflies cannot survive the colder winters up north. Receiving a cue from mother nature, they know it is time to fly south, sometimes traveling as far as 3,000 miles using a combination of air and thermal currents. How the monarch finds its way is still a bit of a mystery that is being studied, but it appears to be a combination of directional aids such as the magnetic pull of the earth and the position of the sun.
An Epic Winter Journey
As soon ago as the 1990s, hundreds of millions of monarchs made the journey from the northern United States and Canada to the fir forests in the Sierra Madre mountains of central Mexico. They would remain in that Mexican habitat until the weather warmed back up and then make the return journey north. Imagine viewing this spectacle, swarms of monarch butterflies creating a cloud dense enough to momentarily block the sun.
Monarchs roost for the winter in the high elevation oyamel fir forests as the mountain hillsides of these forests provide an ideal microclimate for the butterflies. The butterflies migrate to this forest because it has all the elements they need to reproduce and survive. Of great importance is that the forest environ is silent, a critical factor for the monarchs. There are also clear streams running between the bushes, and the temperature is cool but not too cold, with temperatures maintaining an ideal range of 32 to 60 degrees farenheit. Monarchs do not eat while wintering in Mexico, having “filled up” on their migration path. That is why the temperature in Mexico is important – if the temperature is too low, the monarchs will be forced to use their fat reserves. The humidity in the oyamel forest also assures the monarchs won’t dry out also allowing them to conserve their energy. Monarchs cluster together to stay warm, and tens of thousands of monarchs can cluster on a single tree. This is quite a sight!
Deforestation Threatens the Monarch Butterfly
Conservation of the monarch’s winter forest habitat is very important to the survival of monarchs. The Mexican Government recognized the importance of Oyamel forests to monarch butterflies and created the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in 1986. But is this enough? What used to be a migration of hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies has shrunk considerably. The Xerces Society, whose mission is to protect pollinators such as the monarch, estimates that only a fraction of the population remains—a decline of approximately 70% has been seen in central Mexico and a decline of >95% has been seen in California.
Much of the land within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, which now encompasses around 300 square miles of land, is communally owned land, a piece of land collectively farmed by a number of individual farmers under a system supported by the state. The residents of these communities are poor farmers who have relied on these forests for lumbering, firewood, and construction material for generations. Although logging was outlawed when the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve was created in 1986, illegal logging remains a problem today, and the resulting deforestation threatens the wintering habitat of the monarch butterfly.
Why Monarch Butterflies Are Important?
The monarch butterfly is part of a group of insects known as pollinators. While being beautiful to observe, pollinators are essential to our environment as they carry pollen between flowers and plants, fertilizing them so they produce fruits and seeds. The ecological service they provide is necessary for the reproduction of over 85% of the world’s flowering plants, including more than two-thirds of the world’s crop species. The United States alone grows more than 100 crops that either need or benefit from pollinators. Beyond agriculture, pollinators are the foundation of most terrestrial ecosystems. Fruits and seeds derived from insect pollination are a major part of the diet of approximately 25% of all birds, and a wide range of mammals. Humans need the services of these pollinators, including the monarch butterfly. Unfortunately, in many places, the essential service of pollination is at risk from disease, habitat loss, and pesticide use, which could have a devastating impact on us as humans.
What Can You Do To Help Protect The Monarch Butterfly?
One way to help is to educate yourself on the monarch, its habitat and needs. This “Protecting Monarchs” fact sheet is a great resource. The United States Forest Service is another great resource, stressing practicing good stewardship in being a thoughtful consumer and a good citizen of the earth. Even your backyard can become an oasis for monarchs, and you can register your butterfly garden as a Monarch Waystation and assist in the conservation of the monarch butterfly in the United States. Learn more at www.monarchwatch.org, a nonprofit education, conservation, and research program based at the University of Kansas that focuses on the monarch butterfly.
Protecting Monarchs and Preserving the Monarch Migration
While there are things you can do at home to help protect the monarch butterfly, it is harder to help in Mexico. The Gifted Tree now has a tree planting project in Mexico, the Monarch Butterfly Project, to help reforest and conserve the monarch’s Mexico habitat. Communities and landowners will be taught sustainable forestry practices such as proper planting techniques, sustainable harvesting, the importance of recycling and waste management, and land and plant protection. The project in Mexico will plant native species, including Oyamel pine, smooth-bark Mexican pine, Chihuahua pine, and Mexican cypress. All with the goal of making sure this migration corridor is restored and protected for future generations of monarchs.
Memorial and Celebration Trees Planted in Mexico
You can participate when you plant a Memorial or Celebration tree. When ordering the tribute, click on Mexico as the planting location. The tree will be planted in Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve and the tree planting certificate will note that fact so the recipient will know that the tree planted will help preserve the monarch butterfly population and help it grow and prosper. Finally, check out our two new butterfly pop up cards that we added as tribute designs. Both guaranteed to bring a smile to the recipient, no matter young or old.