‘Though we travel the world over, to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.’ ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
The autumn generation of Monarch butterfly each year is a traveler. Hidden within her DNA is instructions for how to get to a roosting tree that she’s never been before, a place that even her mother and grandmother never knew. In the way her great- or even great-great-grandmother did last winter, she is predetermined to spend the first three months of her life some thousand miles or more from she was born (in Houston), with millions of others of her kind.
She is a traveler, a pretty one at that, and she might fly 50-100 miles every day until she gets to her destination.
We Call Her ‘Flash’
Ready for Travel!
The 1st generation — her grandmother — hatched in spring and is genetically different than the last of the year. 4th- and 5th-gens do not reproduce initially; they are programmed to fly! Following a long winter’s rest, they return again the following year to guarantee next year’s population. Millions of years it has been the way, and only until very recently, it has been working well for them.
Nature’s brilliance sometimes comes at a cost, particularly when competing with other Earthlings for space. Habitat loss due to one very successful hominid (that would be us) results in urban sprawl, roads and highways, and modern agriculture that have all but eliminated the single food source on which its offspring depends. Without milkweed, Mommy monarchs simply have no place to lay their eggs, no cafeteria on which monarch babies (caterpillars) can dine and get a good start in life.
It compounds through the year. Without the 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-gens annually, the 4th-gen would cease to exist to migrate each year. No migration return, no successive populations, much less a growing one. And on it goes.
Timing Is Everything
Bottom one emerged (see previous photo),
upper has a few days to go.
Recently their population has been plummeting, and now the Monarch butterfly is a poster-child for insect extinction and conservation. Who doesn’t like the pretty butterfly who effortlessly flits from flower to flower, vibrant in its wing patterns and colors? (Beetles and locusts and flies, they aren’t very pretty, but some of them are disappearing too. They all deserve equal attention.)
So why not plant milkweed in our home gardens and landscapes then? Native plants (antelope horn, swamp, green milkweeds) can be hard to find and for some, even harder to get established. Tropical milkweed grows more like the weed that it is, but planting a non-native is not without its downside. Many suspect it has been promoting the deadly parasite infection — Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE, for short) — which is killing monarchs outright.
It’s sad when a chrysalis shows signs of this disease, but at least this one won’t make it to the roosting tree and spread the parasite to others.
Here’s what you can do:
- Plant milkweed, even tropical if that’s all you can find. Better, build a pocket prairie that is never mowed.
2. Save some seeds, let seeds re-establish (milkweed is annual). In time, the scattered seeds will sprout, and you can once again enjoy your monarch investation all over again in spring next year.
3. Cut down non-native milkweeds to 6″ stumps early November, certainly by Thanksgiving, if you’re in the Houston area. It will both discourage Monarchs from staying behind, and it will lessen further damage to this species in the process.
- 1st of Year: 1st Generation Monarch | DirtNKids
- Epic Migration: Which Way Did That Butterfly Go? | Flight of the Butterflies
- OE Fact Sheet | Monarch Joint Venture
- It’s The Little (Exoskeleton) Things | DirtNKids Blog