El Nino has struck hard in many places this winter and the area of Mexico where Monarch butterflies overwinter has been devastated by the effects of winter storms. This is tragic news for the people who live in these regions, but it has been a real disaster for the Monarch.
Unprecedented rainfall from late January through the first week of February led to flooding and landslides that resulted in the loss of many lives and in the near destruction of the towns of Angangueo and Ocampo, the two municipalities that serve as base for tourists who visit the Monarch colonies at Sierra Chincua and El Rosario. The community of El Rosario was also hit with a major landslide that buried more than a dozen residents and destroyed much infrastructure in the region. The consequences of this disaster will be felt by the residents of this area for years to come. But it wasn't only people who were affected.
The Monarch colonies were strongly impacted by the unprecedented rainfall. The final estimate on the mortality suffered by the butterflies is not yet complete, but it is already clear that more than 50% of the overwintering population died as a result of the harsh winter conditions. It is expected that the number of Monarchs returning north this spring will be fewer than at any time since the wintering colonies became known to science in 1975. These numbers are so low that they are sure to have a long term effect on the butterfly population and the number of Monarchs that will be available to make the flight back to Mexico next winter is likely to be substantially less than in recent years.
So what's to be done about all this? Do we just wring our hands and gnash our teeth over the vagaries of weather? Actually, there are things that can be done, and, as gardeners, we are perfectly positioned to do some of them.
Monarch Watch, an organization that tracks and monitors the butterfly, is launching a "Bring Back the Monarch" campaign in response to the tragedy. The center point of the campaign is the expansion of the Monarch Waystation Program and the planting of more milkweed on both private and public lands.
I know that many Southeast Texas gardeners and gardeners around the country already include milkweed in their gardens to attract the Monarchs and to feed their caterpillars. If you don't have any milkweed in your garden, this is the year to plant it! If you do already have the plants, consider planting even more.
We, of course, have no way of knowing how many of these marvelous insects will make their way back to us this spring, but when they get here, we want them to find the larder full and plenty of places to lay their eggs. We want, in short, to do everything possible to encourage and support the recovery of the beautiful fliers that represent both the fragility and the tenacity of life. Let's do all that we can to make our gardens a place of respite and refuge for these creatures that bring us so much joy.
Do it for the butterflies...
...and for their offspring.