In April 2022 The Gifted Tree published a blog titled “The Monarch Butterfly and the Importance of Trees.” Since the publication of this well-read blog, we have received numerous questions on how individuals can help save this beloved species. I will delve into that answer in a moment. Unfortunately, since the publication of the blog, scientists have placed the iconic orange and black species on an endangered list because of its fast-dwindling numbers. Endangered is two steps away from extinction, and while this is not imminent, it is the rapid rate of decline in the numbers of monarchs that has scientists worried. The monarch butterfly’s struggle to survive is the result of habitat destruction, increased pesticide use and disruptions along its migration route caused by extreme weather events linked to climate change.
Why is the Monarch Butterfly Important
Monarch butterflies are prolific pollinators and critical to the health of our planet! Monarch butterflies and the pollination services they provide contribute to the sustainability of entire ecosystems. We should be concerned about this decline in the numbers of monarchs because as pollinators, the monarch butterfly migration across the continent provides an invaluable service, essential for many ecosystems to thrive. It is thanks to pollinators, such as butterflies, bees, and other insects, that we have many of the flowers and dietary staples that we enjoy, like squash and blueberries. As monarchs forage for nectar, they can unintentionally move pollen within and between flowers. This movement of pollen helps flowering plants make seeds, which can eventually disperse and grow into more plants. Seeds and fruit produced as a result of successful pollination can also feed other organisms. While feeding on the nectar that comprises their diet, they pollinate many types of wildflowers — providing an invaluable ecological service to forests and farmlands across their range. They also provide an important food source for birds, small animals, and other insects.
Planting Trees in Mexico Helps
As explained in more detail in our blog, every year, in the early fall, as temperatures begin to fall in North America, millions of monarchs start an epic 3,000-mile migration. They are bound south, instinctively seeking the forests that offer the perfect conditions for overwintering, the welcoming montane oyamel fir and native pine forests of central Mexico, mainly in the state of Michoacán. Adding to the mystique of thousands of butterflies funneling into the Mexican forests every fall is the fact that monarchs arrive around the same time when Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated in early November. “In Mexico, even before the Spanish colonization, you could see images of butterflies through stone carvings and paintings of Indigenous groups,” said Joel Perez-Castaneda, Project Director for The Nature Conservancy in the state of Indiana. “In some stories, they are the returning souls of the loved ones. In others, butterflies are returning warriors that were killed in battle. The truth is that a lot of Indigenous groups believe that, even after passing on, their souls lived through nature and the environment.”
Oyamel firs and native pines do not provide food for the monarchs, but are uniquely suited to provide the climate and shelter that eastern migratory monarchs need to rest after their long migration — and to survive the winter. Here, they rest and conserve their energy until seasonal changes provide signals to the butterfly that it is time to start migrating back north to lay eggs and begin the cycle again. The Gifted Tree now has a planting project in the region surrounding the Monarch butterfly Biosphere Reserve in and around the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in the municipalities of Senguio and Ocampo Michoacán, Mexico.
As mentioned, the Abies religiosa (Oyamel) tree, which has a lifespan of up to 300 years, helps form the traditional nesting site of the monarch butterfly. These unique trees are being lost due to a one-two punch of overharvesting and climate change. Their strong wood is used to build train tracks — and during the establishment of the Mexican railroad system, logging and manufacturing sites were established, with profound effects. In addition to overharvesting impacts, the Abies religiosa can’t tolerate temperatures above 77 degrees Fahrenheit, and with steadily rising temperatures in its home range, it has been forced to move further and further up the mountainside in search of cooler conditions.
By planting oyamel and other native montane oyamel fir and pine forests, as The Gifted Tree’s project in Mexico does, we can help protect vital monarch nesting grounds, restore degraded lands, improve water filtration and watershed health, protect vital ecosystem services for nearby communities, and more.
What You Can Do To Help The Monarch Butterfly
As mentioned previously, we have received numerous inquiries as to how individuals, in addition to planting trees in Mexico, can help in the protection of the monarch butterfly. I will try to outline below several ways to get involved and also provide some resources to seek more information.
1. Plant a Butterfly Garden in Your Back Yard
Butterfly gardens are composed of a combination of host and nectar plants that provide food for both the adult and larval stages of butterflies. Monarchs need nectar to provide energy as they breed, for their migratory journey, and to build reserves for the long winter. Nectar from flowers provides the fuel monarchs need to fly. If there are not any blooming plants to collect nectar from when the monarchs rest on their migration, they will not have any energy to continue. Planting monarch flowers that bloom when they will be passing will help the monarchs reach their destination. Creating more monarch habitat will help work to reverse their decline.
Plant milkweed! Monarch caterpillars need milkweed to grow and develop. Monarch butterfly caterpillars are uniquely picky in that they only feed on milkweed plants. As a result, milkweed is the only host plant of the monarch butterfly. Unfortunately, human development has decreased the availability of milkweed and plants utilized for nectar There are over 100 milkweed species that are native to North America, many of which are used by monarchs. To learn which species to plant in your region, and how to plant them, visit the Bring Back the Monarchs Campaign at: www.monarchwatch.org.
2. Reduce or Eliminate Pesticide Use
Pesticides can harm monarchs and other beneficial insects directly by toxicity. Pesticides also can cause indirect harm by reduction of host and nectar plant availability. Limiting pesticide use in your yard will not only help monarch butterflies, but it will help protect other butterflies, pollinators, and beneficial insects. There are ways to protect your garden from pests without harming monarchs according to the website Farm and Dairy.
Leave milkweed alone. Regardless of what strategies you use to control pests in your garden, milkweed should be left alone. It is monarch butterflies’ only host plant and also provides a source of nectar. Milkweed should never be treated with pesticides and likely won’t need much maintenance. It is resilient and spreads quickly when given the space to do so.
Plant more natives. Native plants provide more benefits to wildlife and are better equipped to survive in your backyard. They naturally require less maintenance.
Space plants out. When plants are spaced according to their mature size and gardens are not overcrowded, it limits a pest’s ability to spread throughout the garden.
Don’t bring pests home. Before bringing any plants home from the nursery, inspect them thoroughly to make sure you won’t be introducing any pests.
Live with some pest presence. A certain level of pest presence is normal and natural. Caterpillars chew holes in the leaves of their host plants, so treating them with pesticides would be counterproductive to conserving butterfly populations.
Wash away pests. A lot of times, aphids and other pest problems can be controlled simply by washing them away with the hose. It may take a couple of showers to prevent them from returning, but it’s safer than using pesticides.
Look for alternatives. Scale insects can be dabbed away with rubbing alcohol, slugs can be caught with traps and worms can be plucked off by hand. When there’s an alternative to using pesticides, use it.
Limit the odds of a monarch butterfly coming into contact with pesticides. There are a number of tactics for using pesticides that can help limit the odds of a monarch actually coming into contact with them — only treat affected plants, spray pesticides when they’ll do the least damage, remove flowers from plants treated with pesticides and choose pesticides carefully.
3. Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
Even with small changes, such as using less electricity, you can do your part in reducing carbon emissions and mitigating the effects of climate change. Increasing seasonal temperatures have the potential to move areas where breeding and overwintering occur. If climate change causes the temperatures to get too warm during spring, monarch butterflies might migrate farther north during the summer seeking out cooler ambient temperatures. Then when winter comes, the longer trip to overwintering sites in Mexico could overtax them and decrease their reproduction. Some organizations to check out to learn more about how you can get involved in protecting the monarch include the aforementioned Monarch Watch and The Xerces Society. Each have projects that you and your family can contribute to. We all need to work together to protect the balance and biodiversity of our natural ecosystems for humans and nature to thrive together.
Learn more about the monarch butterfly and the importance of trees. Honor a loved one by planting a memorial gift tree or celebration tree in Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve and help save the monarch butterflies.