Friday, October 21, 2016

The Monarch Story

published as commentary in the Post Register, October 20, 2016

My son found a late season monarch caterpillar on one of the few remaining green milkweeds in late September.    

Because a cold snap was imminent, we brought the caterpillar in the house along with a few leaves to put in a jar like we used to do when Seth was a boy. Within a couple of days a cocoon appeared. We knew it was going to be too cold and wet for the butterfly to survive in Idaho so we sent it with Seth as a traveling companion on his move to Chico, California. He knew that monarchs had the ability to re-calibrate a change of location and Chico isn’t far from traditional over-wintering sites along the California Coast.

Generations of kids have been introduced to the wonder of nature by these once ubiquitous beauties. It’s not only the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly that fascinates us, but the migration mystery as well. The annual route, up to 6,000 miles round trip, requires about four generations, with the spring and summer insects living only 2- 6 weeks as they work their way north from Mexico or California to Canada and then back south in late summer. Our butterfly will be the lucky generation, living up to 8 months, and delaying mating until after its wintertime rest.

Sadly, monarch numbers have plunged over the last twenty years by as much as 74% in 2015. Insecticide and herbicide use is undoubtedly part of the problem. Milkweeds, the only plant the monarch caterpillar can eat, is in serious decline. Humans have gotten very good at killing living things, including many species we never intended to.   

Milkweeds are abundant on our ranch. They love the ditchbanks, and I even let them crowd the edge of our lawn, using the mower to squelch their valiant attempts to invade my landscaping. I’m okay with ragged edges in my spot of earth. You might call it unkempt; I call it biodiversity - different plants with various characteristics to support all the creatures that live on the ranch, with the cows, the herding dogs, the horses and our human family.

British East/West philosopher, Alan Watts, said it: “Life is wiggly.” And we’d all be better off acknowledging that fact. Farmers mow, spray, disc and otherwise manicure the edges of their farms. Homeowners prune, pull, edge, trim, eliminate the undesirables and promote the ornamental. I appreciate the ordered beauty as much as anyone, but nature loves complexity which is usually messy. 

How many kids these days bring in a caterpillar to watch it turn into a butterfly? Do kids play outside anymore? And if they do, are there wild spaces where milkweeds grow and crawling, creeping, insects live?

Luckily, individuals and groups across our continent are working together to create and protect habitat. Over-wintering sites are receiving tourism income rather than having to cut down forests that harbor butterflies. We landowners can now receive government help to plant “pollinator plots.” Backyard gardeners are planting milkweed and nectar producing plants. Even Monsanto, blamed for promoting glyphosate herbicide use in the agricultural industry, effective at eliminating milkweed from crops, is contributing over $3.5 million over three years in matching monies for research and education to restore and enhance monarch habitat across North America.

Good news for this iconic, fleeting and fragile resident of our natural world.


  1. gorgeous photo! you found a caterpillar in September?

  2. Yes Gerry! One lonely fellow. Seth sent me a photo the day it emerged in Chico!