ANDERSON — A great migration is underway.
In August and September, a super generation of Monarch butterflies emerges from their chrysalises. East of the Rocky Mountains, they will fly from as far as Canada to their wintering areas in the forests north of Mexico City where they will stay for the winter. They will live eight times longer than the generations before them that traveled north in spring.
West of the Rockies, the butterflies migrate to Southern California; a resident population in Florida doesn’t migrate.
But the Monarch is in trouble. The plant they need to survive, milkweed, is disappearing. A plant many consider a weed is the only place a female Monarch will lay eggs. The toxic plants also give the Monarch an unpleasant taste, one predators associate with their colorful markings and soon learn to stay away.
Milkweed used to be a common sight along the road, said Loretta Heiniger, who for 20 years has worked to help the Monarch by planting gardens and rearing butterflies.
“When I grew up, grandpa had four fields: pasture, beans, corn and hay and alternated. So you always had a field and a fence row where you had milkweed, but you don’t have it anymore,” she said.
The eastern population is down 80% and the western population is down 99.4%, going from 4.5 million in the '80s to under 30,000 as of January 2019, according to the Xerces Society.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was petitioned to list the Monarch as endangered in 2014. The deadline for a decision on the petition has been extended to December 2020. But there are efforts underway to help the butterfly and other pollinators.
Indiana’s CORRIDORS (Conservation On Rivers and Roadways Intended to Develop Opportunities for Resources and Species) program seeks to use land along rights of way and bodies of water as habitats for pollinators and grassland-dependent species.
The program is a partnership between Department of Natural Resources, the Indiana Department of Transportation, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.
“Some of those areas that used to be inhabitable by native pollinators and the monarch are no longer habitable so we can counter that by creating these corridors ... essentially for pollinators to be able to feed in or breed in and that way can find a place to rest along the way — kind of similar to staying at a hotel on a long trip,” said Megan Abraham, a DNR division director and state entomologist.
Homeowners can help, too. Planting milkweed for caterpillars and nectar plants for adult butterflies will help not only the butterfly but other pollinators who are in trouble.
“There are a lot of different plants that we can plant that still look pretty in our neighborhood — native plants that are pollinator friendly,” said Abraham.
A good source for those plants is the Friends of Mounds State Park native plant sale held each spring.
Also, homeowners can limit the use of chemicals in landscapes.
“Rethink the way you’re using pesticides,” Abraham said. “Instead of automatically moving towards the chemicals, perhaps there is a way you could use sanitation — or just remove weeds by hand instead of spraying.”
Heiniger has another suggestion. When buying plants, seek out nurseries and garden centers that don’t use neonicotinoids. The pesticides are absorbed by the plant tissues where they can harm monarchs and other pollinators like bees. Citizen science is another way to help by participating in Monarch Watch’s tagging program. There are three tagging events in the month of September. More information is available at the Indiana Wildlife Federation’s website, www.indianawildlife.org.
Data gathered from tagging helps scientists study the migration. In fact, citizen scientists’ tagging efforts led to the discovery of the Monarchs’ wintering grounds in Mexico in 1975.
“I think it’s just important to let everybody know that just by making these small changes in the way you’re doing your general practices and your chores and your routines, you can make a huge impact on the environment,” Abraham said.