Monarchs and Milkweed
What a marvelous video from the folks at Yosemite National Park… it illuminates a whole universe of diminutive life within a field of milkweed. From buzzing and battling bees and shimmering beetles to hovering hummingbirds and a host of butterflies, the camera’s lens becomes a portal to a tiny world normally existing only in the blur of our periphery.
The star of this show, of course, is the Monarch butterfly. Every year, Monarchsfrom across North America venture south to the forests of central Mexico to wait out the winter. On wings of stained glass, these speckled pioneers flutter by in one of nature’s most epic migrations, a trip that spans multiple generations, begun by grandparents and finished by their grandchildren.
(image by Raina Kumra, via Wikipedia)
This ecological wonder, perhaps unfortunately, balances on the spindly stalk of a single plant family.
Danaus plexippus lay eggs solely on milkweed plants. Plant and butterfly have courted one other with the dance of evolution over untold thousands of years, the adult butterflies feeding upon and pollinating the flowers, the caterpillars having adapted milkweed’s toxic latex sap into a protective poison that keeps predators at bay. And since the Monarch requires multiple breeding cycles to complete its migratory hopscotch, it must be able to find milkweed not only in its summer home, but at rest stops along the way. As I write this, in fact, a milkweed plant behind my house in Austin, TX is home to two Monarch caterpillars, who will soon continue their southerly flight in the place of the parents that laid them there.
(GIF by Harald Süpfle, via Wikipedia)
Sadly, as herbicide-resistant crops like RoundUp-ready soybeans and corn have been planted throughout the west and midwest, milkweed has been decimated thanks to herbicide-infused monoculture farming practices. Where monarchs could once find farmland ringed in host plants, they now only find food for humans. Plants, plants, everywhere, but nary a milkweed to drink.
Although Monarch populations have suffered as a result, with record low numbers arriving in Mexico, hope is far from lost. Farmers can set aside milkweed refuges away from their crops, and reduce their use of broad-range herbicides. If you live along the migration route, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also has directions on how to plant your own milkweed. Luckily (and I can speak from inexperience here) this is a plant that requires no green thumb to thrive.
Why work to save them? What good to us is a butterfly that feeds upon a weed? For many, its beauty is reason enough. But it is perhaps more important to realize that nature has made a place for this plant and this insect, perhaps without reason or purpose, but most certainly with consequences.
As John Muir, father of Yosemite and all of our national parks, once wrote:
When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.
The video from Yosemite is a worthy reminder of that. You’ll be amazed at what you see when you stop and smell the flowers. Let us work to make sure that there are flowers left, both for our souls and the feet of Monarchs to land upon.