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Monarchs rule

GAYS MILLS - Here’s some good news as we head into winter: Monarchs are making quite a comeback. That is not a political statement. The Monarchy, you know, the sovereign heads of states, wherever they may reign, seem to be doing quite well, thank you very much. The British Monarchy in particular has been in the news a lot what with all the recent weddings, presidential visits, and so on. They should print up a program (including a chart) so people can keep track of the players in their much-watched, centuries-old pseudo governmental and royal activities.

No, the Monarchs I refer to here are the Monarch Butterflies. Most people just say Monarchs and we know what they mean. The iconic, showy orange, black and white Monarchs, reminiscent of a stained glass window, may be the most familiar butterfly to Americans. Monarchs have been struggling for years and their numbers have been declining, but people who follow and study such things claim that 2018 was the best year for Monarchs in a decade.

Monarchs face several problems in their struggle to survive. There is an area in the mountains west of Mexico City where many Midwest Monarchs go to overwinter on fir trees. That special area has been increasingly deforested which is a major cause for the species’ decline. The habitat in the U.S. has also changed with the advent of herbicide-resistant crops. Better weed control for farmers equals less wild plants that butterflies and other pollinators depend on. Plus, the less predictable weather hasn’t helped Monarchs either. However, the conditions were right this year for Monarchs and they thrived.

Monarchs and milkweed plants are closely linked. You knew that. Milkweed is crucial for the reproduction and rearing of young Monarchs. The young larva must be born and develop on milkweed. The adults feed on a wide variety of wild plants and are known as excellent pollinators, but they must lay their eggs on milkweed to produce young. People interested in helping Monarchs either spare milkweeds when they see them or plant patches of milkweed to support the ‘Monarchy.’

Sidebar: During World War II, milkweed pods were gathered as part of the war effort! The silk in the pods was used as a substitute of kapok, a material from trees found in Asia. Both of the materials were light and buoyant and used in life preservers. I’ve often wondered if harvesting all those pods put a crimp in the Monarchs’ life cycles.

A Kansas-based organization called Monarch Watch is active in supporting and monitoring Monarchs. Among other things, they measure, in hectares, the area where Monarchs spend the winter. A hectare is 2.47 acres. They expect a roosting area this year of 5 hectares, which is twice as large an area as what they used last winter. The peak area occupied by the gorgeous insects was in 1996-97 when 18.9 hectares were utilized.

I think of Monarch Butterflies as a celebrity species. They are the State Insect in seven states and legislation has been put forward to make them our national insect (two efforts of that failed). They are popular and have been a part of summer for all of us.  They are also a “canary in the coalmine” and can tell us about environmental conditions, if we pay attention. I wish them well on their lengthy migration and look forward to their return.