Butterfly expert: Simple acts can lift monarch numbers

monarch butterfly

These male (left) and female monarch butterflies are two of the estimated 56 million that wintered in Mexico this past season. Though the numbers are up a bit over previous winters, experts say the species still has an uphill climb ahead of it. On June 4, at the Marble Falls Public Library, Cathy Downs of the Bring Back Monarchs to Texas will discuss steps individuals and property owners can take to help the species. Photo courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR

MARBLE FALLS — When faced with a declining species, the average person might throw up his or her hands and say, “I can’t do anything.”

But Cathy Downs of the Bring Back Monarchs to Texas program has a bit of advice.

“If we can get people to create individual sites of monarch waystations from a small container to an acre, it can make a big difference,” she said. “If you plant milkweed and the native nectar plants, they will come.”

Downs will bring her message to the Marble Falls Public Library, 101 Main St., at 10 a.m. June 4 during a Highland Lakes Birding and Wildflower Society meeting. The program is open to the public.

Though the recent migration and breeding grounds have shown an increase in the number of monarch butterflies, the species isn’t out of the woods yet. According to a Texas A&M University report in February, researchers estimated 56.6 million monarchs wintered in Mexico this past year, up from 33 million in 2013-14.

Still, that number is well off the estimated 1 billion monarchs that overwintered in Mexico during the 1996-97 season.

Downs said one of the biggest obstacles facing the monarch species is the loss of habitat along its traditional migratory route from Canada and the northern United States to its winter grounds in Mexico.

“Every time there’s a new development or we pour more concrete, the monarchs lose another place to find food or milkweed,” she said.

Milkweed has become somewhat of a rallying call for monarch enthusiasts. The plant, which grows native along much of the monarchs’ route, provides a major food source and resting spot during the spring migration. Downs explained that, on the spring migration back north, the monarchs use milkweed as a place to lay their eggs, which eventually become caterpillars. A caterpillar feeds on the milkweed until it becomes a chrysalis, which hangs on the plant. After the new monarch emerges from the chrysalis, it heads north.

It can take three generations before the monarchs successfully make it back to their northern habitat.

“Many people see milkweed as a problem plant, so they get rid of it,” she said. “What we try to do is work with homeowner and property owner associations to get them to leave the milkweed or plant native milkweed (for that area).”

Even people with a small backyard or just a balcony can help by planting milkweed or native nectar plants. Downs added that, during the fall migration, the monarchs require these nectar plants as a food source.

During her discussion, Downs will cover several topics relating to the monarch, including its anatomy, biology and life cycle; migration; and milkweed.

“I will talk about the milkweed that’s specific to the area,” she added.

Downs also will bring several living examples of monarchs. In some cases, it might be an adult butterfly, but depending on the life cycle stage, it might be a caterpillar or a chrysalis as well.

“They are such beautiful critters in all their life cycles,” she said. “We need to recognize these critters and what we can do for their habitat. Even if it’s planting some milkweed in a container on your porch, it all helps. We have about 9,000 certified monarch waystations around the country, but what we need are 9 million.”

Downs will discuss monarch waystations as well in her program. Go to monarchwatch.org to learn more about monarchs. Or, you can attend Downs’ program at the Marble Falls Public Library.

daniel@thepicayune.com

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