I was delighted to find this monarch caterpillar in our garden today, munching away on some Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).
We used to see monarchs on a regular basis, but in the last few years these visitors have become very rare in my wildlife garden. My own anecdotal observations match what scientists who study these beautiful orange, black and white insects are seeing across the continent: monarch numbers are alarmingly low.
Some wonder if the species is close to disappearing entirely from our landscapes.
For years I’ve been participating in the Journey North citizen science project by diligently reporting my sightings. As the Journey North website explains, early fall is the peak season for monarchs here in the East. Their numbers are at their highest. (To learn more you can also check out the excellent Monarch Watch website.)
It seems very likely that the caterpillar I found this weekend will attempt the arduous journey down to Mexico, where it will hopefully winter over with millions of other butterflies in a forest high in the mountains. The incredible details of this amazing trip, taken each fall by a new group of butterflies, always amaze me.
For years scientists have been warning that many of the same practices and pesticides used in our American farm fields are threatening this species, in addition to illegal logging in Mexico.
This year I fear that the inspiring and lovely monarchs will face a whole new round of hurdles in the form of mosquito spraying to prevent the spread of the Zika virus. Like the bees described in this sad article from the Washington Post earlier this week, butterflies are very vulnerable to pesticides, particularly the broad-spectrum types being used by both municipalities and homeowners in increasing numbers.