In earlier times, coal miners took canaries into the mines to tell the condition of the mine’s atmosphere. They knew that if the fragile birds could live, the air would support human life. If the birds fell dead, it was time for the miners to rapidly climb to the surface. The honey bee has been described as our present-day canary in the coal mine. Its decline and death means that the environment is becoming less safe for humans. The monarch butterfly is another species that is an indicator of the health of the environment. The beautiful monarch is well known for its 3000 mile annual migration across North America to Mexico. Alarmingly, the migrating butterflies have been reduced to a severe minimum with monarchs declining in numbers by 90 percent in recent years. Many of the suspected causes of the monarch butterfly’s decline are the same as those involved in the decline in honey bees: the loss of habitat and food, the effects of climate destabilization, and heavy use of pesticides and herbicides. The developing monarch butterfly caterpillar relies on a single food source, native milkweed. Adult monarchs consume nectar from flowers for energy for their migration.
Much of the land that supported the monarch butterflies has been converted to agricultural usage, primarily to grow soybeans and corn. A New York Times article, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/21/us/setting-the-table-for-a-fluttering-comeback-with-milkweed.html, relates efforts to provide necessary food for the monarchs. Individuals, businesses, and government agencies are being encouraged to plant milkweed and create monarch waystations for the butterflies. Fortunately, creating habitats and feeding areas is quite simple, and the benefits extend to honey bees and other important pollinators. Information on habitat restoration is available through the Pollinator Partnership, http://www.pollinator.org/monarchs.htm, and Monarch Watch, http://www.monarchwatch.org/. The prospects for restoring monarch populations are promising. According to Monarch Watch’s director, Dr. Chip Taylor, butterfly populations can vary wildly from year to year as habitat and weather change. In today’s photo a monarch butterfly forages on milkweed at Peace Bee Farm.