Missing the Monarch butterfly

Journey North founder Elizabeth Howard on a recent visit to the Monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico. Photo supplied by Elizabeth Howard

I haven’t seen the sanctuaries in Mexico’s mountains where Monarch butterflies spend the winter, but the image supplied by Elizabeth Howard from one of her visits there tells the story. Hundreds of millions of Monarchs cling to the trees, and when the temperature reaches 55 degrees (F) it’s warm enough for the cold-blooded insects to flex their wings and head north.

Howard is Executive Director of Journey North, a non-profit that coordinates volunteers to track this spectacular migration. Howard’s Minnesota childhood and a conservation biology background that includes work for the Nature Conservancy, helped her understand how significant the Monarch’s journey is. The butterflies that weigh little more than a paper clip, travel more than 3,000 miles to reach breeding grounds and the all-important milkweed plant in Minnesota and elsewhere.

In a new episode of Minnesota Sounds and Voices, I visit the home of Dave Kust in Brooklyn Park for a Monarch hunt. You can hear the result on Monday’s All Things Considered.

Dave is a volunteer, a citizen scientist if you will, and is one of thousands of volunteers who help track the Monarch migration patterns.    Dave and others around North America observe and report on natural phenomena of all kinds and their reports go onto the Journey North Web page for use by everyone with special tailoring for classroom teachers and students.

For a range of reasons the Monarch population is at its lowest recorded level in more than decade, according to scientists. It’s down 80 percent from last year’s population and the overall population trend for the past decade has been a decline in numbers.  The Monarch is regarded by researchers as a marker or indicator species which means it reflects climate conditions and the overall health of the environment.

Last year’s drought in the southern U.S. took a huge toll on Monarchs.  Stands of their host plant, the milkweed, were decimated.  On a broader scale Monarch habitat has been shrinking for years as development including suburban sprawl and chemical-based agriculture reduce the number of milkweed plants.

Howard says Monarch females can each lay up to 600 eggs in their one month long lifespan which means numbers can bounce back.   Brooklyn Park resident Dave Kust is trying to do his part by what he calls his Johnny Appleseed-like behavior casting milkweed pod seeds wherever he can in an effort to create rest stops or way stations for the iconic insect.