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Fluttering Into History

Monarch butterflies are an ambassador of the insect world. We have all seen a monarch butterfly, brilliant orange and black flying gracefully from flower to flower in our landscapes. Many of us take for granted this gossamer visitor, and think little of their journey or the hardships that they face. These small but mighty insects travel on average 2,500 miles to reach their winter homes. This feat of travel is comparable to a human being walking around the world at the equator 10 times. This great migration requires massive amounts of energy, which the monarchs gather from nectar-bearing wildflowers along their travel route.

The monarch begins its life on that once common, milkweed plant. Monarchs hatch and undergo metamorphosis in the center of our country, in fields of corn and soy. The larvae, or caterpillars, of the monarch butterfly only eat milkweed plants. Midwestern fields were once full of milkweed and other wildflowers and the young butterflies had ample supplies of food. With the recent increase in the creation of crops that can withstand large amounts of herbicides, the wildflowers have diminished. The more herbicide tolerant crops, the fewer wildflowers will grow between the rows. This trend combined with habitat loss, climate change and increased pesticide use has led to a “perfect storm” contributing to the decrease in Monarch populations.

This rapid and dramatic decrease in Monarch populations reminds of the tenuous and delicate balance of life. One hundred years ago we lost the last of the passenger pigeons, a species once so common their migration could darken the sky for fourteen hours. Their loss was directly related to human action, the loss of the Monarch butterfly will be the result of human inaction.

We can take direct and influential steps in our home landscapes, at schools, churches and parks to create the necessary habitat for these mighty travelers. Monarch Waystations can be planted and maintained to provide both nectar plants for adult butterflies and also host plants for butterfly larvae. We can also pledge to use fewer pesticides in our home landscapes to encourage butterflies and all other pollinators.

The Monarch has now reached a critical moment; the U.S. government has been petitioned to add them to the list of Federally Threatened Species. If they are placed on the list, there will be additional actions that can be taken to prevent their habitat destruction. Read the press release regarding the petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council. Let us not be complacent and allow another emblematic species to go extinct. I will leave you today with this thought from Robert Frost:

The Tuft of Flowers


I went to turn the grass once after one

Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen

Before I came to view the levelled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;

I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,

And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

As all must be,’ I said within my heart,

Whether they work together or apart.’

But as I said it, swift there passed me by

On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night

Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,

As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,

And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,

And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look

At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared

Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,

Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,

By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.

But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,

Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,

And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;

So that henceforth I worked no more alone

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,

And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech

With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,

Whether they work together or apart.’