Monarch Butterfly Woes or More Misconceptions?

According to this article in the Good Times,  I just found out that I was harming Monarch Butterflies by growing an Organic Butterfly Garden that is also a Certified Monarch Waystation… Imagine my Shock!

I have been growing my Butterfly Garden for over seven years and in the past six years I have also been hand raising Monarch butterflies indoors in my sun room. I have released hundreds of Monarch butterflies and I have learned so much about the challenges of this most delicate of species. In nature only 3% of eggs laid make it to adulthood. 

My Monarch raising in 2017 started in mid March, in the past it has started as early as mid February. The first group was very small, just five or six. They emerged and then hung out in the garden. The next generation was much, much larger, I had well over sixty chrysalis and about 95% success for emerged butterflies. I was really concerned though, I thought I would have more eggs than I had milkweed for since that group of sixty plus completely devoured most of my milkweed, but instead of tons of eggs, I didn’t find more than ten, so I figured since it was so early in the year, they must have headed out of town to join the Western migration. For the rest of the summer I had constantly ten Monarchs eggs per generation on their journey from caterpillar to butterfly, until the later generation, then the numbers went up again, not quite to over sixty, closer to fifty, and I have still have half a dozen chrysalis, and a dozen of caterpillars in various stages. Monarchs are flying daily in the garden.

I have five types of milkweed – swamp, narrow leaf, showy, balloon and tropical, I don’t grow common milkweed in consideration for my neighbors as that variety is highly invasive.  As far as success this year it has been consistently 95% that make it from egg to adult, those odds are significantly better than in the wild. 

And yet according to this article this is a bad thing. How? I mean specifically, exactly how? This quote “DWINDLING MONARCH POPULATIONS FACE ADDITIONAL THREATS FROM A NEW PARASITE AND EVEN SOME WELL-INTENTIONED GARDENERS” is wildly inaccurate, the OE parasite has been around for a very long time. More and more gardeners are becoming aware that Tropical Milkweed needs to be cut back in the winter, and in the microclimate where I live I have never had to to that, I get a couple weeks of frost every winter that will kill any lingering Tropical milkweeds. The perennial milkweeds that I grow, already have died back by the end of fall. 

Let me break this down further… First of all this article doesn’t include any recent reports or research, it is basically an interview with one person, Martha Nitzberg, a park “interpreter” I am not exactly sure what that is, but she is in the Natural Bridges Park, one of the Monarch sanctuaries here on the west coast and she most likely loves butterflies, no doubt. But, still this is one person’s perspective, I do not see any evidence of the claims in this article, such as the “Monarchs are being devastated” The claim is 30% have the OE parasite. Please show me a current  report that has data to support this claim, is it this year, last year, in California, in Santa Cruz? One article I found showing this data of 30% infected was from 2004. And what about the Monarchs that have been devastated due to Round Up poisoning (fact… Round up is a variant of Agent Orange). How many… 10%, 50%, 70%? We don’t really know because we don’t focus on that aspect of the decline of not only butterflies, but bees as well. Okay, moving on. In my personal experience of raising Monarchs, this year I had zero, yes zero O.E. infected Monarchs. I know the symptoms well, I have previously lost a few Monarchs to that parasite, nor did I have any NPV (Nuclear Polyhedrosis Virus) incidences, nor Tachinid flies. I lost the 5% of Monarchs I raised to the extreme heat this year (dehydration), to predators (wasps) and to accidents. 

Next point, the “loss of the Migration” I have studied this too, as I am also concerned. Yet as I said earlier my March Monarchs did not lay eggs in mass here in East Side Santa Cruz, I also asked gardeners close by and going up to Davenport, no, there were not mass eggs anywhere, so where did my sixty plus butterflies go? My theory is that they joined the Western Migration. It is interpreter, Martha Nitzberg’s theory that they are “trapped” in Santa Cruz. Even though I didn’t see hordes of butterflies but a modest ten or so throughout the summer, both are theories and until and unless we tag the butterflies to see where they go, we don’t know for sure. Again we need evidence, studies and real data not just theories and that is on both sides. Next year I plan to tag my early Spring butterflies just to see where they end up. 

There are some areas like Florida that do have Monarchs year around, that is not a bad thing nor does it appear to stop them from migrating to Mexico, this year has seen a significant increase of migrating butterflies in Mexico –  (Note: the eastern migration goes to Mexico, the western migration comes here to coastal California) The same issue applies to Florida as it does to south Texas and Southern California, if Tropical milkweed isn’t cut back to encourage new growth, or rinsed off the OE parasite can thrive. Even still the Monarch population in those areas is quite small compared to the larger migration that goes to Mexico. The Monarchs in those areas would still stay there with or without gardeners, milkweed has a vigorous habit of reseeding without the help of “well-intentioned” gardeners.

Just the “Facts” Ma’am…

This is one of the many articles addressing the use of the now vilified Tropical Milkweed (by the way, fact… Tropical Milkweed is  classified as a California Native by the USDA . Asclepias curassavica L.  bloodflower native to California, Texas, Tennessee and Florida. Reference –

This  article (link- is an interview in 2015 with Art Shapiro distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, after observing the mating habits of Monarchs in the Bay Area for many years, this is his response to the OE parasite, quote: The reference to OE is correct, Shapiro said. “However, there is an easy ‘fix’ that nobody talks about for some reason: just cut the plants to the ground a few times a year. This will encourage new growth, which will be cleaner, prettier, more nutritious, and uncontaminated with OE. There is nothing inherently ‘bad’ about winter breeding if it’s clean. Infected winter breeding is a population sink. The animals are often too feeble to fly, and may be unable to expand their wings. But perfectly healthy ones are being produced right now in the East Bay on clean plants.” (my side note, I didn’t have to cut my plants back this year, the caterpillars did that for me by devoring them to the nub, nature always takes care of the details!)

More references about Monarchs and milkweeds – 

Info from a person (one of my mentors) raising Monarchs for the Eastern Migration for over 30 years –

Why am I responding? Because unless you are part of the solution, like I aspire to be, growing an organic garden to support our pollinators and going so far as to have extensive raising environments in my home, tediously rinsing off the milkweeds to give to the caterpillars (which will cleanse the milkweed of the OE parasite), cleaning up the caterpillar frass (poo) to avoid disease, checking in daily to the health and well being of the caterpillars, providing a safe place to pupate, and the after all is done, gingerly collecting the now emerged butterfly to release it back into an organic garden filled with nectar flowers and with countless other butterfly species, you only have these articles that spring every now and then to go by. These articles claim that we gardeners in Santa Cruz (some that I have met actually test the butterflies they rear constantly for OE) are doing great disservice to the very creatures we devote endless time and resources to protect and support and when a friend shows up at my door upset that by growing milkweed that I gave her she is some how at fault… I must clarify the issue with other’s research and my six years of hands on working with the Monarchs and the food they require as well as all the other butterfly species.

Bottomline, I feel that I have worked on helping the Monarchs towards recovery from the brink of extinction and at the same time I have gained a personal interconnection with the most marvelous of creatures, the Monarch butterfly. When I hold each one on my hand as I release them to their freedom, I feel their trust, their connection that we made in their caterpillar state (there is scientific evidence to this as well), then they fly away, some have come back to my garden and others went on to another adventure. In my six years of experience, this HAS ALWAYS BEEN A GOOD THING! This experience has touched me to my very deepest depths and has healed my deepest emotional wounds like nothing else has. Every newly emerged butterfly is a miracle yet again. These days we need all the miracles we can get (or raise!)

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