I present a thought experiment: Have you ever had a butterfly land on you? What happens inside you when you think about that moment? My memory is of my then 7-year-old sister when we celebrated our grandmother’s birthday at lunch in Altus. Beautiful. However, the records show that those butterfly moments happen less and less these days. Now, have you ever helped someone simply cross a street? Why would you even bother to help someone — a complete stranger — overcome an obstacle? Because to them, they are in an uncertain place, and, as humans, we empathize. A feeling of compassion activates inside us when someone or something is in a state of need, and with this, we act — and do so, generally, without consideration of reward for ourselves.
Though naturally incredible navigators, the Monarch butterfly exists today at an uncertain crossroad. First, the main buzz was concerning decreased bee populations, and now the menace continues with Monarchs and the other pollinators, such as hummingbirds, wasps, moths and even bats. Monarchs cannot vocalize their issues, but they are crying out in need, and as stewards of Earth, it is our responsibility to provide aid.
“The Monarch butterflies are a very interesting species because they are considered an umbrella species — this means when you take care of this specific insect, you can take care of an entire ecological community, and you can help them thrive,” says David Jonathan Romero, aka “Monsieur Butterfly,” a filmmaker, painter and photographer who resides near Michoacán, Mexico.
This month we will (one hopes) have thousands upon thousands of the striking orange and black and white speckled Eastern Monarch visitors in Arkansas. They winter in the Michoacán vicinity of central Mexico and will pass through Arkansas on their annual migration toward Canada. The Monarch is a beloved species around the world, and now it is facing unfortunate stress. The Monarch shares its innate magic and delicate presence, whether they know so or not. The butterflies have a grand effect on not just our sense of wonder and overall positivity but play a significant role in our everyday lives, whether we know so or not: They help make our food.
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are one of the greatest scientifically evolved and recognized insects on the planet and have become the flagship mascot for all pollinator species. At half a gram in weight with a 4-inch wingspan, Monarchs travels an astonishing 2,800-mile annual migration to survive and serve as the symbol of metamorphosis and renewal. They follow temperature, the sun and the milkweed plant. Amazingly, it is four generations of Monarchs sharing the responsibility of completing this journey; three of the generations die off during the migration. Great-grandmother Monarch departs Mexico and great-granddaughter Monarch returns to Mexico. An average life of a Monarch is three months, compared to the Diana Fritillary (the state butterfly of Arkansas) that is longer-lived at five months. Incredibly, this fourth-generation Monarch can live to eight or nine months to travel the entire return trip from north to south.
Jorge Rickards, the director general of World Wildlife Fund-Mexico (WWF-Mexico), points out that the Monarch is not in danger of extinction, yet, but their migratory process is at risk. “Monarch butterflies show us how individuals work. In this case, migration can be an exceptional collaborative exercise when all the migrants gather in the forests to hibernate together and buffer the climate.”
The Monarchs once came in welcome droves, but now their numbers are shockingly low. In 2020, Western Monarch numbers, once 1.2 million strong, became 1,914 in total in some places, as reported by The Los Angeles Times. San Diego, California, reported that those millions of Monarch butterflies reached the zero-population mark, according to KFMB-TV.
Even the place adorned as “Butterfly City” reports collapse in butterfly population, and last spring not a single Monarch arrived. In central Mexico, where it’s easiest to count Monarchs through acreage spread, the population is down approximately 80 percent, according to WWF-Mexico and Xerces Society. The Associated Press agrees that Monarchs are down to 26 percent of their quantity, and 51 acres of forest loss is a cause. Deforestation (both legal and illegal) rips the environment apart. Science.com suggests, “Rising autumn temps disrupt their reproductive cycle,” so combine these factors with pine beetle tree damage, drought, windstorms, floods, increased heat and humidity, and the signs all point to problematic outcomes. Not all is lost, though, because we can rebuild. And the Natural State has taken this literally.
Leslie Cooper is the Arkansas Monarch and Pollinator Coordinator with Quail Forever. She says, “The most important thing that Arkansans can do to help Monarch butterflies is to create native habitat by planting Arkansas native plants. People can also participate in community science projects, like the Arkansas Monarch Mapping Project, hosted by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC), on iNaturalist.” (Find opportunities on Facebook and Instagram: @arkansasmonarchs.)
Your contributions will have a positive outcome because Monarchs = pollination = food. Milkweed + Adult Monarchs = Monarch eggs = Caterpillars = new Monarchs in springtime through summer. More Monarchs = more food.
Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) is the only plant Monarchs will lay eggs upon, so cultivating that is the first thing to do right now. Their caterpillars only eat milkweed. Interestingly, milkweed is toxic to all other animals, causing rapid heartbeat and potentially cardiac arrest, but these butterflies have evolved a protein that regulates their heart function. Milkweed and its soil need to be organic — herbicide- and pesticide-free — and trimmed to the ground around Thanksgiving. This ensures we do not entice Monarchs to stick around, and we reduce the growth of OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha), a deadly parasite. The Monarch needs to get back to Mexico to enjoy the warmer conditions. After hibernation, naturally, the cycle renews — back across the United States/Mexico border and ready to reproduce in the spring. (Go to www.ArkansasMonarchs.org to contribute. Also, www.JourneyNorth.org/map/ has some interesting migration maps to check out.)
Since the Monarch population hit a staggering global low of 72 million total in 2012 (682 million in 1997 for comparison, according to biologicaldiversity.org) the world of the Monarch has been watched. By 2015, Arkansas brought together 30 agencies and created the Arkansas Monarch Conservation Partnership. In 2018, this collaboration developed a conservation plan with the aim to quantifiably reserve more than 500,000 acres of quality habitat for pollinators by 2035. The pollinator species tangibly influences the price and quality of oil, cotton and 75 percent of the food we consume, according to AGFC. Climate change is a touchy topic these days, but we all should agree that we all impact the ecosystem — for better or for worse. This one outreach will benefit the ecosystem of everything. Eighty-five percent of land in Arkansas is privately owned, so this outreach will take compromises and new habits by private individuals.
Samantha Scheiman of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (ANHC) says, in its “75 natural areas, the ANHC offers 70,548-acres of conservation land. In 2020 alone, the ANHC conducted stewardship activities across at least 840 acres to maintain habitat.” The 2035 plan for 500,000 reserved acres of restored habitat is a work in progress, but well-established. Fun Arkansas math fact: There are 33.2 million land acres total in Arkansas — roughly 53,000 square miles with 781 square miles set to reserve. Visiting ANHC areas is a humbling experience as they are designed to be original and wild. Raising awareness, creating citizen scientists, using control burns, implementing “Project Wingspan” (a nine-state landscape-enhancement partnership), collecting seeds and bringing the Arkansas woodlands, savannas, prairies and glades back to wild is in good practice for the health of natural areas. And if you have acres of land to enhance, Scheiman also mentions checking out AGFC’s Private Lands Program. There are also financial and technical assistance programs.
Emily Flora is our resident “Madame Butterfly” in Little Rock. She is an Arkansas Ambassador for Monarchs, has grown more than 400 since her first three in 2016 and tagged 86 in 2020. With the name Flora, of course she would find love for pollinators and flowers. Her Audubon butterfly waypoint and home serve as a lab to cultivate and grow Monarchs. She tests her garden for OE, which is a devastating protozoan parasite that evolved alongside and strictly affects Monarchs by causing weakness and wing deformations. She learned to grow organic milkweed and then tagging from Ed MacDonald, who has been tagging Monarchs since 1998 and has tagged 1,885 in his lifetime. In 2003, his group tagged about 800 Monarchs in a single day at Mount Magazine. The two are examples from hundreds of people who contribute on www.ArkansasMonarchs.org. Contributors can potentially find where their tagged butterflies wind up if the data is entered into the database and the Monarch is recovered. MacDonald knows where 61 went. Flora says she has not recovered any but loves the nurturing process just the same.
Flora collects the tiny white eggs on milkweed leaves and protects them in a butterfly house to ensure a future for several butterflies. One egg will transform from larvae to plump yellow, white and black-striped caterpillar to chrysalis and into an adult Monarch all within one month. Adult Monarchs drink nectar from this same milkweed, and others, like the orange- and pink-flowered tropical variety. There is no need to rid out other milkweeds if you have them — just trim them down to ground level by autumn. Put milkweed in pots if you like, and remember: milkweed is toxic when consumed, so do not allow children or animals to eat milkweed.
As quoted earlier, Romero is a filmmaker and painter familiar with the mountain forests northwest of Mexico City. He believes the butterflies changed his life, and he incorporates them as a symbol of migration and rebirth. Our conversation was interesting because I thought he used actual monarchs in his process. However, as I’ve come to understand, their tiny bodies are replicated as laser-cut photographs, prototypes Romero is currently researching to recreate a representation of the Monarch sanctuaries using recycled PET waste (polyethylene terephthalate) — a process he learned in college — and the resulting translucent mini-sculptures are as beautiful as stained glass. (View his work on Instagram: @lordmariposa.)
Finally, this article acknowledges the efforts of many environmentalists and the advice of some of our best resources in Arkansas. We have many agencies and people working together, including: Arkansas State Parks, the National Park Service, AGFC’s Allison Fowler, ANHC’s Samantha Scheiman, Audubon, the Nature Conservancy, the USDA’s Leslie Cooper (also working as the Arkansas Monarch and Pollinator Coordinator at Quail Forever) and Arkansas Department of Transportation’s Kayti Ewing, who helps ensure the future of the pollinators with restoration areas rather than entirely mowed motorways. Private Arkansans, like Lori Spencer (“Arkansas’ Butterfly Lady”), and interpreter/photographer Don Simon, are advocating for pollinator survival.
Arkansas’ resource list is plentiful. Some of us will grow Monarchs while others will grow flower-filled gardens. Please go to www.ArkansasMonarchs.org and watch the gorgeous and informative “Wings of Hope: Monarchs in the Natural State” from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for even more information.