Good News on Monarch Butterflies – For Now

So the numbers are out on the eastern Monarch population in Mexico for the winter of 2015-2016, and the news is good. The Monarchs roosting in pine forests occupied a total of 4.01 hectares (a little under 10 acres) this year, more than three times last year’s 1.13 hectares (less than 3 acres). The population nadir occurred in 2013-2014, when Monarchs covered just 0.67 hectares, about 1.5 acres.

DSC_0714 Monarch
Monarch on Butterflyweed.

The 2015-2016 numbers were just released today by the Monarch Joint Venture, a partnership of US government agencies and environmental organizations.

Here’s a chart showing the winter Monarch population since 1994.


The Monarch recovery is still very fragile. Research indicates that a population covering 6 hectares is needed to bounce back from sudden population declines caused by bad weather or disease. Moreover, this winter’s population is just a small fraction of the Monarchs overwintering in 1996-1997, when they covered over 18 hectares.

Good weather and habitat restoration both seem to have contributed to the recent increase in the Monarch population. A great deal more still needs to be done, though.

On an individual level, I take this as a reason to plant MORE  MILKWEED (Asclepias) in home gardens, starting with my own. I am actually waiting for a shipment of a Sullivant’s Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) from Prairie Moon Nursery. This species is supposed to be similar to Common Milkweed (A. syriaca), with round umbels of fragrant pink-lavender flowers – but much less aggressive.

DSC_0821 monarch on swamp milkweed
Monarch on Swamp Milkweed

And I noticed that Prairie Nursery is selling two new Milkweeds this year: Showy Milkweed (A. speciosa) and Poke Milkweed (A. exaltata), a taller Milkweed that can grow in shade.

Another aspect of the problem is the use of insecticides, particularly neonicotinoids. Any gardener who wishes to help Monarchs and pollinators generally should refrain from using these toxic products. However, it will require government action to substantially reduce the application of the most harmful insecticides.

Monarch Butterfly
Monarch Butterfly on Anise Hyssop

To that end, it was frustrating to read of a report from a UN-affiliated agency on the status of pollinators. The report seemed to treat the complexity of the threats to pollinator populations as a reason to avoid calling for strong action on pesticides. A spokesperson for Bayer, the company that manufactures neonicotinoids, was pleased.

65 Comments on “Good News on Monarch Butterflies – For Now”

  1. It is good news, though the general state of pollinators is dicey, to say the least. I’m eagerly awaiting our first monarchs through here from Mexico in the next weeks! Thanks for spreading the good news about these lovely insects.

  2. Thanks for the update, Jason. S,mall but important steps to recovery Beautiful picture of the monarch on the hyssop.
    I’m still having trouble getting purple milkweed to make a home in my garden. However, I was asking for butterflyweed (A tuberosa) at a local nursery last year and they gave me what turned out to be a flourishing variety called “hello yellow”. It bloomed like crazy from late June through August and the monarchs, swallowtails, and bees loved it. It’s about 3′ tall which made me wonder about A tuberosa, usually much shorter.

  3. I have found it hard to keep the butterfly weed or the swamp milkweed going in the garden. The swamp milkweed needs quite a bit of moisture and while it will adapt in some manner to dryer site, over time it seems to diminish. As for orange butterfly weed it tends to like dry well-drained sandy soils. It is not commonly available. I believe it requires cold stratification to grow from seed. Many asclepias require a bit of moisture. The showy milkweed native to the western United States may be different in this regard and possibly not as invasive as the common milkweed.

  4. We had a few Monarch last summer (4 or 5) which was better than none the year before. We maintain a very large patch of A. syriaca. Apparently one of the big problems is that earwigs eat the eggs. That is why some people have taken to raising them indoor and releasing them in nature.

  5. This is good news although when you look at how much the population goes up and down each year I think another good year would make me feel a little bit better.
    I’m not sure if I see the connection between neonics and monarchs. I’m all for reducing pesticide use and misuse but monarchs seem to grow up on weeds and feed on wildflowers and garden flowers, not the agricultural crops which usually suffer the highest neonic loading. I find the link between roundup use and decreasing monarchs to be more serious. Maybe we should breed a roundup ready milkweed to seed into fields…

    • My understanding is that the neonics are systemic and get into the nectar of flowers and from there to the butterflies and others that feed on the nectar. The impact of Roundup is indirect – Roundup tolerant crops allow farmers to drench whole fields in the stuff, resulting in far fewer weeds, including milkweeds, than there used to be.

  6. That is good news. I have not seen a single monarch butterfly in my garden for the past three years — and I’d much rather have monarch caterpillars than milkweed tussock moth caterpillars munching on my milkweed plants. Maybe this year.

  7. I’ve not seen one in Real Life (being in the UK) but have seen the spectacle of these beautiful butterflies on nature programmes on TV. It is indeed good news that they seem to be increasing in numbers and long may it continue. Do you think that big pharma/chemical companies operate in a different universe to us?! It never ceases to amaze me that they continue to peddle their wares when there is evidence of harm. ANY evidence of harm should send them back to the lab. Grrr. Exquisite photos.

  8. Sadly the big chemical companies have so much power. The EU is going to renew permits this week to use glyphosate (Roundup) on crops. The studies claiming that it is harmless all seem to rely on tests carried out by government institutions (whose interests are…?). Millions must have been spent on studies intended to prove it is not harmful, but the fact is that it is toxic and kills plants such as milkweed. I hope your monarch butterflies manage to recover again next year, as it is very promising to hear there has been slight progress.

  9. I think pesticides are doing even more harm than we know. We have to keep preaching organic and keep planting milkweed! I haven’t seen many monarchs the past few years. Hopefully the upswing will continue.

  10. I can leave the exact same comment I left on the last blog I read minutes ago. “I was glad when I first read the news on Monarchs. It is a popular blog subject right now. I have been planting milkweed for years now, not in my tiny garden, but in the parks near my home. I have been getting many monarchs these last two years. I noticed the numbers increase in the last couple of years and I do believe it has to do with so many people and organizations raising Monarchs for release. I am certain that is the reason in our region.” You mentioned pesticides and I fully agree. The problem is far reaching and unlikely to be rectified without company compliance. I feel there is more to the story too. Insects are being deformed and I would bet genetically they are being altered. This will ruin future generations much if true.

  11. We can plant milkweed until the cows come home (and I hope we do), but the real battle is with the pesticide manufacturers and our current system of monoculture farming that relies on those pesticides. There’s no a simple fix, but perhaps we’re making progress.

  12. Hello Jason, I’m glad there has been an up-turn in the population and I hope it continues. The plight of pollinators, bees in particular, makes me want to chock-fill the garden with flowering plants to create a pollinator haven. I just can’t seem to plant quickly enough and the plants aren’t maturing quickly enough and it feels like a race against time. The garden must be planted, must grow and must expand to support the eco-system and food chain that will bring it to life. It’s early days yet and while there has been tremendous progress on one hand, it still feels far too slow on the other.

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