Viewpoints on how to save monarch butterflies are varied

Pollinator gardens, which can include plants attractive to bees and butterflies, have become quite popular these days. Most public gardens and arboretums have a featured pollinator garden, and people around the country concerned about dwindling populations of bees and butterflies because of stories in the news are seeking advice on how to help raise pollinator numbers. But just like many other stories about how to help endangered species, the bee and butterfly issue is fraught with controversy.

Because science is something that evolves over time, and living things–whether human, animal or plant–are complicated, scientific understanding of how to control or restore populations often changes with time. In the case of the monarch butterfly, research done by some experts is now colliding with research done by others. Depending on which publications or blogs you subscribe to, you may see one opinion or another. However, your colleague or friend might see another, and when the two of you talk, you might wonder if you’re doing the right thing, and if not, what you should do. I have presented three schools of thought currently being generated in blogs and online newsletters or magazines so that you will know much of what is being discussed with regard to saving the monarch butterfly.

Until fairly recently, much of the literature on the plight of monarch butterflies focused on restoring their milkweed habitat. Research suggested that monarchs fed on it and laid their eggs during their long migration to Mexico from the United States. However, in May Entomology Today presented findings from an entomologist at Cornell University who suggests that monarchs do not visit milkweed during their migration; they just migrate. Read the article here.

However, in this month’s Common Sense Pest Control Quarterly, published by the Bio-Integral Resource Center, the editors present research that suggests that monarchs do indeed feed on milkweed. The article details monarch biology as well as milkweed biology and also presents other ways to attract monarchs. Read the article here.

The Common Sense article contains a list of milkweed species that will attract monarchs. One of the species, tropical milkweed (not native to the US) may contain spores of a protozoan parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE). The parasite severely reduces monarch numbers, and because the milkweed species doesn’t die back in the winter, many monarchs don’t make the trip to Mexico at all. According to the third article, which appeared in Science Magazine in January 2015, monarchs that remained in the southern US were five to nine times more likely to be infected with OE than monarchs that migrated. Read the article here.

So what’s the take-home lesson? If you have already planted milkweed in your garden, if it’s native milkweed, there is no danger. If you have planted the tropical milkweed and have the time and money to plant native, the Science magazine article suggests that replacing the non-native milkweed with native milkweed would be beneficial. And if you haven’t yet planted milkweed, you might just wait to see where the conversation goes in the scientific community before you plant anything. The good news is that the decline of monarch butterflies has now got scientists talking, so several are now doing more research. So the only thing that I can tell you with all certainty is that, once again, the science will change!

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