The Fight for the Flight of the Monarch

Prior to 20 years ago, it was common to see the vibrant orange and black adult monarch butterfly flying in New England backyards. School children have been illustrating them in art class for decades. Numerous states adopted the monarch as their official state butterfly. The multigenerational migration of the monarch is iconic. They complete a 2,000-mile journey over several months, and yet weigh less than a single gram.

There are no butterflies in the world that migrate like the monarchs of North America. Advocacy group, Monarch Watch, said the butterflies travel over 3,000 miles in mass groups, similar to whales and birds. The eastern monarchs cross the Tropic of Cancer and fly to a forest about 30 miles west of Mexico City, landing in Mexico’s Oyamel Fir Forest.  They ascend up to 11,000 feet above ground to the exact same winter roosts year after year. The following season, the fourth generation butterflies will fly to the same trees as their past lineage. It remains a mystery how the monarchs know to return to the exact same sites as the generations who went before them.

For the first time in history, biologists fear that the monarch may be flying into endangerment. They have discovered several man-made problems that are contributing to the steady decline of the monarch migration.

Dr. Lincoln Brower
Dr. Lincoln Brower, Sweet Briar College

Dr. Lincoln Brower, research professor at Sweet Briar College, has studied monarch butterfly population for over 50 years.

Brower said three of the most detrimental threats to the monarch migration include changes in climate, loss of habitat, and a decline in availability of milkweed plants– the butterflies’ main food source.

While illegal logging and untraditionally severe rains contributed to the monarch population decline the past few years, advocates have linked saving the butterfly to the conservation of a single, leafy plant.

Milkweed abundance has declined severely after biotech corporations, such as Monsanto, killed more than a billion milkweed plants with herbicide.

“With the ethanol movement, many agricultural areas have been converted to growing corn,” Brower said. “The monarch’s principal breeding area is in the corn belt.”

Not only is this contributing to the endangerment of the monarch butterfly, but many of the weeds are building up resistance to the poison. Consequently, as herbicide usage increases, it eliminates nectar sources for the monarchs. Over 150 million acres are now sprayed each year with the herbicide.

Monarchs live off of lipids during winter survival. If the monarchs do not have nectar sources, they will die.

“If there is illegal logging, the monarchs will lose their protection during the overwintering period as they rely on clustering under the tree canopy” Brower said.

Brower said there is a very real chance the species will become extinct because of these reasons.

“The migration will be lost. This will diminish the species,” Brower said.

milkweed-infographicThere are many known dangers in consuming genetically-modified organisms, yet powerhouse corporations continue to spray Roundup on millions of acres of land. Brower said this practice will continue as long as it remains profitable for those corporations.

“The monarch is like the canary in the cornfield telling us it’s threatened and it’s part of a bigger problem,” Brower said.

If agrochemical corporations continue spraying the herbicide on millions of acres of land, it will negatively affect the health of not only animals, but also humans.

“If you spray plants like the milkweed, it blocks photosynthesis. The plants starve to death and die,” Brower said. “Many animals rely on the plants as a food source. These companies are altering the food chain.”

The Journal of Organic Systems published a study linking Monsanto’s most used herbicide, Roundup, with the ever-growing increase in chronic diseases across the United States.

Many advocate groups are choosing fight over flight and working to become a part of the solution.

There are many advocate groups fighting to protect the flight of the monarch. They petitioned to make the monarch a threatened species. This would provide protection in the form of monarch sanctuaries and mitigation of milkweed law, forcing agri-chemical corporations to leave portions of the land untouched by herbicide.

The Ohio Pollinator Habitat Initiative aims to improve pollinator conservation in the state of Ohio. They have the goal to plant seven million acres of habitat over the next five years.

Joel Hunt, an Ohio Department of Transportation spokesperson, said the department is “planting milkweed along 19,000 miles of roadsides to connect pollinator habitats for the monarch.”

So far, they have planted 23 new habitats in the last year, totaling around 90 acres of land.

“We’ve been focusing on Northwest Ohio and east of Columbus,” Hunt said. “We’ve received so much interest through the media that we know it’s going to be a success.”


Butterfly Sanctuaries in Ohio

Wheeler Farms Butterfly House: Wheeler Farms Butterfly House begins season begins May 1, 2017. The Butterfly House contains over 1,000 butterflies with many different species, from North America, South America and even Asia. The facility was built with the idea of developing beautiful gardens in a controlled environment to exhibit butterflies to the general public.

Beech Creek Botanical Gardens: Beech Creek Botanical Gardens is located in Alliance, Ohio. Their season will start mid-June of next year. Visitors to this butterfly house will be able to stroll down the garden path and discover butterfly species in all stages of their life cycle.

Miller Nature Preserve:
The butterfly house at Miller Nature Preserve is free and open seasonally from the third week of June to Labor Day.

Five Rivers MetroPark:
The butterfly house at Cox Arboretum in Five Rivers Metropark is one of the few butterfly exhibits in the country featuring exclusively butterflies native to Ohio.