It is March and the first faded, beleaguered monarch butterflies are arriving in Texas from their wintering grounds in Michoac√°n, Mexico. But there are far fewer arriving. The National Wildlife Fund reported that this year saw the smallest population in recorded history.

The migration saga is a powerful one, unique to the monarch. Like a bird or a whale, the monarch flies on fragile wings thousands of miles across three nations--Canada, the USA and Mexico, to reach the giant Oyamel fir trees of central Mexico for their winter stay. Unlike the bird or whale, however, it is not the same monarch that makes the round trip. It is the 4th or final generation monarch (the Methuselah generation) that goes into diapause, does not mate, and triggered by light and temperature change and diminishing food source, migrates to Mexico. The journey is a miracle of genetic memory.

This migration is a phenomenon that only happens in North America. And it is this phenomenon of migration that is threatened. Millions of monarchs make the journey, which seems like a huge number. But in fact, that number is greatly diminished. This year the butterflies occupied a mere 2.93 acres (1.19 hectares), a 59% drop, down from 7.14 acres (2.89 hectares) last year and the lowest population since record keeping began 20 years ago. During the 1990s, the amount of forest typically occupied by Monarch butterflies averaged more than 20 acres. The population is twenty times lower today than in 1997. This drop, while stunning, should not come as a surprise.

Last fall I, like so many others, witnessed the already dwindling migration numbers of butterflies face a hell of drought, wildfires, and persistent pesticides on their journey south. Texas, a critical state in migration, remains in a serious drought. Thus, the butterflies arrived at the sanctuaries thinner than they needed to be to survive the winter. In addition, continued illegal logging of the precious Oyamel firs within the sanctuaries in Mexico added to the perfect storm. If you're like me, you can't imagine a world without monarch butterflies. You want to help this beleaguered and beloved butterfly. And you can.

What you can do to help.
1. Plant Milkweed
Many of you planted the free milkweed seeds I gave out when I released THE BUTTERFLY'S DAUGHTER. Thank you all! I've received many letters and photographs showing your gardens with monarchs and loved seeing them all. In light of the historic low numbers of monarchs, we need to redouble our efforts and get more milkweed out there. The spring planting season is upon us. Here's how you can plant milkweed in your garden.
      a. Seeds: Time's a-waistin'! For seeds you'll have to plant seeds indoors now. You can get free milkweed seeds at www.livemonarch.com. This site also provides growing instructions!
     b. Plants: You can also jump start the season by purchasing plants. Get starters from www.livemonarch.org at a reasonable price. Due to demand, however, the site is currently not taking new orders on starter plants. Check often.
       Large plants: Of course, you can purchase larger, established plants from your local nursery. Be sure to ask if the plant has been sprayed with pesticides, either by them or from the nursery of origin. Check this website as a source to find milkweed: http://www.monarchjointventure.org/Milkweed/Default.aspx

2. Do not use pesticides.
Pesticides kill monarchs at all stages of the life cycle. Don't worry about pesky aphids (yes, they do love milkweed.) Hose them off...

3. Plant nectar plants that will feed the butterflies.

4. Support local conservation efforts. (Below thanks to Journey North at www.learner.org A great website!) Protect Breeding Habitat Look for conservation opportunities at the landscape level in your local community, region, state or province. Understand the facts. Identify the decision-makers. Communicate about the issues. Get involved in the process of land management.
  • Mowing of milkweed Talk to your local farmers, road crews, railway managers and highway department about ways to reduce or eliminate mowing, especially in late summer when the migratory generation is developing. If you must mow, pay attention to the timing of monarch generations and implement a regimen of alternate cuttings, so that new milkweed is continually available and generations have time to develop.
  • Pesticide use Milkweed often grows along railroad, power line and road right-of-ways where pesticides can be reduced or restricted.
  • Agricultural practices Follow current research. Participate in efforts that foster understanding of the effect of genetically modified crops and other agricultural practices on the ecosystem. As a consumer, find ways to reduce your effect

Build it and they will come!

Enjoy the journey of learning about and getting involved with the world of the magnificent monarch! Build a butterfly garden and the butterflies will come to flutter among your flowers, lay their eggs, and bring you hours of joy, even as you know that you are supporting the monarch population--and the population of other species of butterflies. Be the "butterfly lady" of your family, your neighborhood! It doesn't have to be a huge undertaking. Planting one milkweed plant in a single pot helps.

I hope you'll share with me your experiences, photos of your garden, and comments. I, too, will continue to share with you. I welcome you all to visit my website: www.maryalicemonroe.com at the Conservation page where I list all my favorite sites. I realize that not everyone can be a "turtle lady" or sea turtle volunteer, or you cannot rehabilitate a bird of prey or a dolphin, but everyone can be a hero in their own back yard!


  1. Hi Mary Alice, I am currently reading The Butterfly's Daughter. It's captivating. Sadly, I read your post here about the diminishing numbers of Monarchs in their migration. I live in Massachusetts and I am in the process of starting a butterfly garden in my yard. Your information has inspired me to continue clearing my plot. Thank you.

  2. Mary Alice,
    We are excited to support your efforts in monarch migration. We will be looking for native milkweed for our gardens and yards!

    Charlottesville or bust!!

    'The Williamsburg Book Ladies'


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All the best,
Mary Alice