Some gardeners spend all of their time chasing insects away. I, on the other hand, seem to spend most of my time trying to entice them to come. So I am missing the monarchs terribly, wondering if I will see them at all this year, and sad to find my milkweed plants so clean, so un-chewed, so un-eaten. It feels as if I’ve set the table but the dinner guests have yet to arrive.
Most years, I begin seeing those iconic orange, black and brown butterflies in May. They touch down in my yard here outside of Washington, DC as they migrate northward from their winter roosting spots in Mexico.
Some years, their early visits have been marked by egg-laying. I have often paused while weeding to examine the leaves of the milkweed carefully; I hate to pull out the plants if they already have little white eggs on them. By June, I’m usually seeing a few caterpillars out there munching.
This year, however, the plants are pristine — not a single white egg, not a single caterpillar hatched, and even more startling, not a single sighting of an adult monarch butterfly.
Apparently it is not just me — according to Chip Taylor from Monarch Watch, the number of monarchs arriving this spring has been dramatically low all over North America. The migration is happening later this year than last year. But also the numbers of butterflies being reported in the US were the lowest of all time since reporting began.
Several factors seem to be causing the low number, Taylor points out in an article posted on his organization’s website. Last year spring came early to North America, and was very dry. This caused monarchs to go north quite early, and may have caused many of their eggs to dry out along the way. Drought conditions may have also caused milkweed nectar to be less available to the adult butterflies. This meant that fewer butterflies were found returning to the winter roosting areas in the mountains of Mexico.
But there is more to this story than just a change in the weather. The habitat for these incredible migratory insects is dwindling in the rural farmlands of North America. Many say the use of herbicide-resistant crops is to blame; there are far fewer places where plants like milkweed can spring up between corn and soybean plants, and thus there is much less space for insects like monarchs to grow and thrive.
Numbers are staggering, sobering — in a NY Times article about the butterflies this March Taylor stated that the amount of area available for the butterflies has shrunk by as much as 150 million acres in the American Midwest.
Its things like this that fuel my desire to keep gardening the way I do here on the edge of a big, concrete-laden neighborhood — organically, and with the goal of providing habitat for native wildlife like monarchs. It sometimes feels as if the last oases will be the forgotten places in the city, and the tiny front yards and back gardens like mine where milkweed and other native plants are allowed to grow in abundance. How strange that what was once forsaken as too ecologically disturbed may now offer some of the best sanctuary.
Rather than making me proud it makes me sad. Even if we planted every suburban yard this way here on the East Coast we could not possibly replace what was once a diverse and beautiful sea of grasses and flowers in the middle of our continent. It feels like a very paltry substitute.