Where I live, the milkweed is now almost shoulder high. I’m allowing it to spread by root through a large portion of my flower garden because it’s got fragrant blossoms, striking leaves, and interesting seed pods. I’m also allowing it to grow because I know that it’s the only host plant for the monarch butterfly’s caterpillar.
I remember finding these large black, yellow, and white striped larva as a child, and discovering the brilliant green chrysalis hanging on the underside of milkweed leaves. This year, I am finding none of that. This year, the milkweeds’ leaves are unbitten.
When I stop to consider it, I realize I haven’t seen one single adult monarch butterfly this year. They used to be common. I remember walking through fields containing many monarchs at once. I spend a lot of time outside, but this year, I haven’t even seen a dead monarch butterfly plastered on a car windshield.
What’s happening? Is this a local extinction, or is it part of a larger problem?
Loggers have been caught cutting down trees in monarch butterfly preserves in Mexico, and farmers across the United States have been wiping out huge amounts of milkweed by spraying herbicides over their fields.
In 2014, the leaders of Canada, the United States and Mexico agreed to cooperate to try to save the great annual migration of monarch butterflies. Just this week, Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto recommitted to the effort, calling the butterflies “spectacular”, and noting their cultural potency as a symbol of border-crossing goodwill.
Symbolism, in the fight to save the Monarchs’ migration, isn’t enough. We need concrete action – and not just in the government. In the marketplace, we can also make choices that support monarch butterflies and other species that can’t survive in vast monocultures. Buying organic food isn’t really a great way to get more healthy foods into our bodies, but it is a great way to keep the planet healthy. Organic farmers don’t spray herbicides that kill plants like milkweed. When you buy organic food, you’re helping to preserve some spaces where milkweed can remain, if only in hedgerows between farmers’ fields.
Of course, if you’ve got space to allow milkweed to grow, that’s great too, but no single patch of plants can ensure the survival of a migratory species. If we care at all about preserving these animals for our children to see, we’re going to have to all work together.