The article was updated to feature a picture of a monarch butterfly, replacing a picture of a butterfly that was not a monarch specifically.
Last year, monarch butterfly conservationist Laura Allinder's tent was lined with cages hosting as many as 500 caterpillars. And with an egg-to-butterfly success rate of 55%, Allinder released 780 monarch butterflies into the wild.
But this year is a different story. Allinder’s tent only has a few cages set up, and she said she is having trouble finding monarch eggs so she has only released 12 butterflies and just has three more caterpillars.
“So that’s like a 90% decline from what I did last year,” Allinder said. “And that’s what’s been really scary to me this year about the reduction in population sizes that I’ve witnessed. It’s just like ‘oh my God.’”
Monarch butterflies are considered endangered by the World Wildlife Fund. There are many reasons for their decline, and most of them can be placed on human activities. For example, milkweed, the host plant for monarch butterflies to lay their eggs on, has decreased due to agriculture and land developers removing it to create more land. According to a study in the Journal of Animal Ecology, due to herbicide and pesticide use, milkweed had declined by 21% from 1995 to 2013.
“You got a lot of use of herbicide, and that leads to all sorts of changes in monarch habitat, so you don’t get that development,” Chip Taylor, founder and director of the Monarch Watch program at the University of Kansas, said. “You also got roadside management that determines what grows where, and some states manage their roadsides like they are trying to manage a golf course which eliminates diversity across the landscape."
Climate change is another challenge monarch butterflies face, especially during their annual migrations. According to the World Wildlife Fund, monarch butterflies are extremely sensitive to weather and climate. They depend on climate cues to trigger reproduction, migration, and hibernation. Due to climate change, especially variations in hot and cold temperatures, monarch butterflies become even more vulnerable to the conditions, according to the World Wildlife Fund. This threatens their ability to reach their overwinter sites in Mexico in the winter and their ability to reproduce in the early summer.
“There is a lot of value in this migration, it is one of the most fantastic migrations that goes on the planet,” Taylor said. “If you are persistent in ignoring these things, then you’ll lose them. We control the destiny of this butterfly and whether there are enough resources to sustain this population. And we have to make people aware of that because we don’t want to lose them.”
Allinder said educating the public about conservation is an important step to take. Now in her fourth year of raising butterflies, she said many people want to help conserve the monarch butterfly by raising them, but do not fully understand everything that goes into the process.
Katie McLaughlin, an entomologist who worked with butterflies at KU, said the best thing people can do for the monarch butterfly is plant milkweed in their yards.
“Planting milkweed and other pollinator-friendly plants is the best solution to restore monarch habitat, in my opinion,” McLaughlin said via email. “I think convincing and encouraging landowners to plant milkweed in their gardens could be very beneficial.”
Walking through Allinder’s garden which is full of sunflowers, milkweed, and many other native plants, there are some bumble bees and wasps buzzing around, but there were no monarch butterflies. Allinder said that she is not going to stop doing what she can do to help decrease that 90% decline she has witnessed.
“Last year there were always butterflies around and new eggs, but this year it’s been depressing,” Allinder said. “And monarchs are so special. But it just has to be more and more and more to get back to where we want to be.”