FACTS FOR FAMILIES: Clearing the Science of Monarch Butterflies | Health, Medicine and Fitness

CHERI BURCHAM Family Life Educator

This article was published this week by Extension Educator Chris Enroth, and I thought it would be the perfect time to share right after last week’s article on monarch butterflies.

Chris says: Have you read some headlines lately about monarch butterflies? “Monarch butterflies are thriving!” “Monarch butterflies are in danger!”

Both of these headlines (or something similar) are recently saturated news feeds for Americans.

Given these stories coming out about two weeks apart, what is one to think? Are monarch butterflies good? Or are they in danger? As you gather with titles like these, the answer is somewhere in the middle. Let’s break down each of these newsmakers.

Starting with the first “Monarchs Evolve” story, if you read beyond the headline, you’ll see that it’s not sunshine for our state insect, but there is good news worth sharing. University of Georgia entomologists have published community science data showing that monarch butterfly populations can recover during the summer in the United States and Canada.

You may ask, “Back from what?” Monarch butterflies can be divided into two types depending on the time of year. There is a breeding population that migrates north in the spring and hangs out with us in Illinois and Canada all summer long. These babies live for about two months, but continue to mate and lay eggs on the milkweed, increasing the population.

Once we hit fall, something changes in the monarch butterfly. Now they migrate and begin the long journey to their wintering grounds in Mexico. These butterflies can live up to eight months. During this journey and in their wintering grounds, we see a decline in the monarch butterfly population. A lack of nectar and loss of habitat is believed to be the main reason for burning these fluttering beauties.

Monarchs were declared endangered

The International Union for Conservation of Nature gave the second title, which announced that the migratory monarch butterfly is endangered. It is a recognized organization that issues global declarations on the status of wildlife species. For example, if you look at the Indian cheetah, you would find that the IUCN considers it endangered.

The same is true of many endangered species around the world. So this declaration carries weight, but what does it mean for us in the US? Well, nothing. The legislation that guides the United States in dealing with endangered species is the Federal Endangered Species List. If the monarch butterfly were on this list, protection would be in effect for the monarch butterfly.

Why are they not on the US list?

It would be bad for most of us, even me sometimes. Monarchs are everywhere. It is truly a North American species. A federally protected monarch means that its habitat is protected. We couldn’t kill the milkweed plant because it’s the only thing the monarch caterpillar eats. And milkweed grows everywhere! We would no longer be able to use monarch butterflies as a teaching tool in schools, rear them indoors, and many other consequences.

FACTS FOR FAMILIES: Monarchs, milkweed and harvestmen

Create, manage and protect more habitats. In particular, habitat that provides good fall nectar sources for our migrating monarchs. If you can’t build a pollinator garden, support organizations that do. The University of Illinois Extension actively establishes and supports monarch butterfly habitats and research. Learn more about one of these initiatives at ipollinate.illinois.edu/

Cheri Burcham is a Family Life Educator at U of I Extension.

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