As go the monarch butterflies, so do we?

The first monarch butterfly of summer fluttered across the yard the other day. Hopefully, there will be more. If memory serves me, last year I saw three monarch butterflies. That’s all.

While my yard supports a bounty of butterflies, none are as extraordinary as the monarch. East of the Rockies, this migrant species winters in central Mexico and makes a multigenerational journey northward in the spring. The northbound butterflies live just a few weeks, then breed to begin the next generation. Interestingly, the southbound monarchs that return to Mexico in the fall can live up to eight months, allowing them to overwinter so the cycle can begin anew.

The butterflies are closely associated with milkweed, which is the primary food source for the black, white and gold striped monarch caterpillars. An alarming decline in monarchs is attributed to loss of milkweed in the United States, largely due to agricultural herbicide use. According to the National Geographic, in 2004, an estimated 550 million monarchs completed the winter migration, while in 2013 only 33 million arrived at the wintering grounds. I can remember when monarchs were far more common than they are today. A few years ago, a quirk of wind and weather pushed a huge concentration of monarchs into northeastern Minnesota. For about a week, my yard was a fluttering wonderland of colorful butterflies.

The plight of the monarch is no secret. People are encouraged to plant milkweed in their yards and gardens. Schoolchildren raise caterpillars through the entire life cycle of the formation of a cocoon and the eventual emergence as butterflies. Also, we are all aware of the troubling decline of bees, which is related to pesticide use. Bees and other insects play a crucial role in pollinating flowers, allowing plants to complete their reproductive cycle. The loss of bees presents a sobering risk to our own food supply.

In my backyard, the abundance of various bees seems to vary from year to year. As a young boy, I spent summer afternoons using a small glass jar to capture bumblebees as they gathered nectar from clover blossoms in the yard. Since I didn’t do anything with the bees other than let them go, it must have been a way for a mother to keep a small boy occupied and out of her hair. My inner hunter developed an eye for bumblebees at that tender age and I still notice them when the clover is in blossom. In a very unscientific observation, I think their average abundance has significantly diminished over the years.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a story about a North Shore logger who was in his eighties. When I asked about changes he had noticed over time, he mentioned there seem to be fewer black flies and mosquitoes these days. I tend to agree with him. Although I spend many summer mornings and evenings walking the dog, working in the garden or just enjoying being outside, only occasionally are the bugs so bothersome that I apply insect repellant. However, this is not the case when I spend a quiet evening fishing on a lake or along a trout stream. Right around sunset, you’ll hear the steady hum of mosquitoes. If you don’t have bug dope, you’ll soon be driven off the water.

The declining numbers of pollinators and some other terrestrial insects is likely attributed to a number of factors. Topping the list is the widespread use of pesticides. We use an array of chemical compounds to kill insects, usually with good intentions. Insects often complicate and confound human endeavors. They may destroy crops, infest buildings and even threaten human health. The problem is pesticides intended to control a specific insect pest can have unintended consequences. For instance, no one wants to kill bees, yet scientists attribute at least part of their decline to a widely used class of pesticides known as neocontids.

Insects are also affected by habitat loss. It’s a no-brainer that few insects live on the paved surface of a parking lot, but the diminishment of biodiversity from human activities such as urbanization, residential development and agriculture may alter, limit or eliminate the natural ecosystems many insects require to survive. Conservationists try to mitigate habitat losses with programs encouraging folks to create bee-friendly gardens and grow milkweed, as well as through larger efforts to restore insect (and wildlife) habitat on the landscape.

Given the public’s concern over the loss of bees and butterflies, wildlife agencies and organizations such as Pheasants Forever now include providing pollinator habitat among the benefits of habitat projects. This is not simply lip service, because insects are an important food source for pheasants and other gamebirds, especially the chicks. While most plants are past the bloom by the time hunters traipse through the cover in October, during the summer they provide sweet nectar for pollinators. For migrating monarchs, a network of wildlife areas can serve the same purpose as wildlife refuges do for ducks. They are places where the butterflies can refuel along their journey.

Time will tell whether this new habitat focus will make a measurable difference for pollinators. Given the political indifference, make that reluctance, to address the unintended consequences of pesticide use via a regulatory process, trying to ensure sufficient pollinator habitat remains on the landscape may be our best shot at protecting butterflies and bees. At the very least, addressing the needs of insects as well as game species in habitat projects creates greater public awareness and appreciation of the need to provide wild lands for wild creatures.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, this is a do or die effort. Pollinators are the means by which many plants reproduce. Without them, we cannot grow many of the foods we eat. Perhaps we can get by without pheasants. In contrast, bees and butterflies are essential to our existence.

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By Shawn Perich