A Royal Reign in Peril

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CSME) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson made international headlines once again last week with his dire predictions concerning this year’s Monarch butterfly numbers, which are at an all-time low across the Brazos Valley and nationwide.

Ever the idealist, Craig appeals below to the altruistic nature lover in all of us with a personal pitch that harkens back to another resilient Lone Star State crusader, Lady Bird Johnson, whom we have to thank for one of Texas’ proudest, most beautiful and time-honored rites of spring — Texas wildflowers.

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In the fall of 2013, the number of adult Monarchs migrating through College Station that were netted and tagged was one-fifth of the number in 2012, coinciding with the data gathered nationwide showing that numbers were way down. This has been confirmed at the overwintering sites in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, where numbers were at historic lows. The combined areas sheltering Monarchs totalled only 1.65 acres, compared to a high of 45 acres in 1996. We now await the arrival of the first adults of the spring migration north, suspecting that they will be fewer in number. Last year, the first recorded sighting in College Station was on March 19 in the USDA People’s Garden on Holleman Drive that is open to the public.

Monarch Butterflies have reigned supreme amongst insects with a long distance migration that is the marvel of scientists, an increasingly aware population of civilian scientists and the public in general. But their reign is under the severest of threats since records have been kept, with numbers plunging so low that they may have reached a point where recovery may be impossible, in spite of the reproductive resilience of insect species that lay enormous numbers of eggs.

Who or what is to blame? There are a number of culprits. As the adults migrate south, they have to consume large quantities of nectar from wildflowers that are fewer in number because of use of herbicide in large-scale crop farming, especially in the Midwest, the biggest threat. In addition, more land has been brought into cultivation that formerly would have supported wildflowers and other wildlife. Then there is the severe drought and wildfires. Each of these events — individually and in combination — depletes available flowers and their nectar, which the Monarchs drink and then convert into lipids to help the butterflies survive overwintering.

What can be done nationwide? Large-scale farming is not going away, so a practice of leaving some crop acreage free of pesticides (note that this term is inclusive of herbicides and insecticides) needs to be increased. Perhaps interstate wildflower corridors could be established that would extend Lady Bird Johnson’s vision for the verges of Texas nationwide. Likewise, mowing of these same verges should be left until after the wildflowers have bloomed and seeded. This would also help the establishment of milkweed plants that are the sole source of food for Monarch larvae (caterpillars) during the migration north.

What can be done locally? Citizens can plant milkweed and other butterfly attractant plants in their gardens — simple actions viewed by some as futile, but every little bit helps, and it raises awareness. Since last spring, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Garden (the Texas A&M campus’ first rooftop garden located at the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building and open to the public) has been planted with more than 400 milkweeds, and four Bryan elementary schools also have established Monarch butterfly gardens. Sadly, the harsh winter means that the milkweeds have yet to start growing, so there may not be enough foliage to feed any Monarch caterpillars that do emerge from eggs.

The situation is dire.

THIS JUST IN: There’s an excellent front-page feature story on the subject by John Rangel in today’s Battalion.

Monarch_DamagedWing

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