Commentary by Ward Degler
A friend showed me a picture of an emperor moth he saw the other day. I told him I had just seen a luna moth. Both are beautiful, oversized creatures.
And both are relatively rare. I’ll spot a luna moth maybe once or twice each summer. I said I hadn’t seen an emperor moth in years.
Since we were already on the subject, we started chatting about butterflies. That’s when the mood darkened, since neither of us had seen many butterflies of any description this summer.
A few swallowtails with their delicate rear ends flitting among the flowers in my garden, a scattering of cabbage moths, and a couple of monarch look-alike viceroys made up the tally at my place. My friend said his was about the same.
No monarchs. Neither of us had seen a monarch all summer.
We’ve long known the monarch is in trouble. For a couple reasons. Storms during their fall migration wiped out an estimated 80 percent of the population a couple years ago. The butterflies, which once covered some 50 acres in Mexico during the winter months, shrunk to less than 15 acres.
During their incredible migration from the U.S. to Mexico, the butterflies can tolerate serious temperature swings – reportedly down to 17 degrees – with no danger. But add rain to the cold air and the monarchs die by the millions.
In the U.S. they are threatened by enhanced agricultural weed control. You can’t blame farmers for wanting to get as much tillable acreage as possible, but herbicides have wiped out most of the milkweed in the country. And milkweed is the only thing that monarch caterpillars eat.
We took a different view of milkweed during World War II. School kids collected the dry pods for the war effort. The silky seed fluff was used to make life jackets. Two bags of milkweed pods would make one life jacket.
Later the government switched to kapok, another fibrous plant that was more abundant than milkweed. Now, of course, life jackets are filled with an artificial fiber.
Entomologists who have taken up the monarch cause say we need 500 million milkweed plants to sustain the butterfly population in this country. No one is asking farmers to give up clean fields for the effort, either. Instead, the onus is on us to buy the seeds and plant milkweed in our flower gardens and along our fences.
And the butterfly folks assure us, that if we plant milkweed, the monarchs will come.