I have been asked this question countless times this year.
As I write this and stroll through my wildlife garden for inspiration, a have a rare sighting – a Monarch nectaring on Giant Sunflower. Despite it being mid-September, I am hoping it’s a summer Monarch and that she will lay eggs to help the population swell.
This year every single Monarch sighting is precious. They’ve been scarce for me and every other wildlife gardener I know. It seems everyone I come into contact with has also noticed their absence.
I have seen only 11 Monarchs in my garden so far this year. Other wildlife gardeners have shared a similar story. Finally during the August 20, 21, and 22 “Tours of Private Wildlife Gardens in Cape May County, New Jersey,” that I lead, several of the other garden owners had a few Monarchs laying eggs and were finding a few caterpillars and chrysalises. On September 14, during a tour of “Private Wildlife Gardens in Cumberland County, New Jersey,” that I led, we saw three nectaring Monarchs, found a few eggs and caterpillars, and were shown two exquisite chrysalises by proud garden owners. The following day, while on a “date” with my true love, Clay, we saw twelve migrating Monarchs along the Delaware Bay.
Looking back, fall 2012 dazzled us with a very showy migration of Monarchs at Cape May. They came in waves with each cold front. On flight days, hundreds of Monarchs congregated at discovered roost sites in Cape May Point’s vegetated dunes in the late afternoon as they settled in for the night. Early the following morning, crowds waited for lift off.
So, in March 2013, it was with shock and alarm that we learned that the Monarchs tallied at their winter roost sites in the mountains of Mexico were at their lowest numbers in the 20 years these roost site counts have been conducted, occupying under three acres (at their highest overwintering numbers they occupied close to fifty-two acres). How could this be with Cape May having witnessed such a good migration last fall?
Chip Taylor (Monarch Watch) Has Been Tracking
the Monarch’s Steady Decline in the Mid-West
In an excellent interview by Richard Conniff with Chip Taylor (for the Yale Environment 360) I learned the following:
The corn belt was always a stronghold for Monarchs. Milkweed grew along the edges and even between rows, able to regenerate after old-fashioned tilling chopped up weeds.
1997 marked the beginning of the end for Monarchs in the Mid-West with the introduction of Roundup-ready corn and soybeans. Increased use of these new crops has coincided with the steady decline of Monarchs. Instead of tilling weeds between rows, fields of Roundup-ready corn and soybeans are now herbicided. The result: all weeds, all plants (except the genetically engineered Roundup-ready, herbicide resistant, corn and soybeans) die, including milkweed. So a huge part of the country has become a dead zone for Monarchs.
Previously the Mid-West contained many millions of acres of Conservation Reserve Program lands, which were also milkweed and Monarch strongholds. The demand for ethanol (biofuels) has resulted in many of these former Conservation Reserve Program lands now being put into corn production (Yup! Roundup-ready corn).
Roundup-ready corn and soybeans are also being planted right here in New Jersey and elsewhere in the East, so these dead zones are not far away but right next door. And there are additional genetically-engineered crops in the pipeline, so more and more areas will be affected.
Couple all of this with the lengthy cold and wet spring we experienced in 2013 and the picture sharpens. Little flight and egg-laying occur below 60 degrees. Too, cold and wet weather can affect the hatching of eggs and the development of caterpillars. This impacted the Monarch population’s ability to leapfrog north and repopulate the eastern US and southern Canada.
My Own Wildlife Garden in Southern NJ
Normally my wildlife gardens attract Monarchs in the spring. They lay their eggs in April and May on Common Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, and Butterfly Weed just peeking through the ground. Normally, by late June and early July, when my Common Milkweed is in full bloom, I begin to see one, two, or three Monarchs daily in my garden, nectaring, mating, and laying eggs on my healthy milkweed stands. Normally, it is hard NOT to find Monarch eggs when peeking under milkweed leaves. Normally, Monarchs continue to be seen in my garden into the fall when some days the garden glitters with dozens (if not many dozens) of Monarchs.
As always, the dinner table was set for Monarchs in my garden this year. Offerings included the magic combination of native nectar plants and stands of milkweed.
But this year (between June and mid-September), I have seen a total of 11 Monarchs in my garden and found only 1 caterpillar. In over 30 years of gardening for wildlife I have never seen so few Monarchs in my garden. Each day I check my milkweed stands for holes in leaves and each day I am disappointed to find all leaves intact and untouched. The absence of Monarchs unnerves and alarms me. Something is very wrong.
Right now in my fall garden and in natural areas around Cape May the dinner table is set for migrating Monarchs and resident Monarchs still mating and laying eggs to create one last generation. Blooms abound with natives like Boneset, Mistflower, Late-flowering Thoroughwort, Seaside Goldenrod, New England Aster, Smooth Blue Aster, White Wood Aster, Turtlehead, Boltonia, Giant Sunflower, Autumn Sneezeweed, Partridge Peas, Cardinal Flower, Cut-leafed Coneflower, Climbing Boneset, Downy Lobelia, Small White Aster, Frost Aster, Calico Aster, and Groundsel-tree. As always in my garden I’ve complimented the natives with other goodies like Sedum, Mexican Sunflower, and Zinnias that will bloom until the frost.
I am trying to be optimistic, hoping that Monarchs will come.
PLANT MILKWEED IN YOUR GARDEN
Milkweeds for Monarchs – plant it and they will come, don’t plant it and someday they may not.
Now more than ever, they need our efforts.
If you do secure seeds of the native perennial milkweeds for your area (including Common, Swamp, & Butterfly Weed here in New Jersey), remember that all need to freeze over the winter, otherwise they won’t sprout. So be sure NOT to leave milkweed seeds on your desk indoors through the winter. Either put them in your freezer OR plant them right now where you want them to grow so they freeze naturally.
Be sure to read Monarch Watch’s fact sheet on Growing Milkweeds.
Monarch Watch sells seeds and began growing plugs in 2013.
On this year’s Tours of Private Monarch Gardens in Cape May County (September 24, 25, and 26) I’ll be giving away Milkweed seeds to tour participants.
Can we counter the hit Monarchs are taking due to Roundup-ready crops by planting milkweeds in our gardens and meadows? Let’s hope so!
Pat Sutton, of Cape May NJ, is an author, educator, and naturalist who has taught gardening for wildlife workshops and led tours of private wildlife gardens for over 30 years. She shares her passion around the country at festivals and conferences and is available to speak to your group or organization.
© 2013, Pat Sutton. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us