By Margo D. Beller
Why would citizens of a free state within a democratic republic care about saving a Monarch?
Because this Monarch is an indicator that our world is rapidly getting out of balance and we will all suffer as a result.
When it comes to butterflies, I can't tell the difference between the swallowtails or the skippers or the fritillaries. But when I see a Monarch butterfly, I have no doubts at all.
Monarchs are among the largest of butterflies, 3.5 to 4 inches big, and are distinctively patterned in orange and black. Look at any butterfly identification book – mine is the Stokes’ Beginner’s Guide to Butterflies – and you will see a Monarch on the cover. They like a wide variety of open habitats including fields, gardens and coasts.
Every year my butterfly bush and joe-pye weeds and other plants draw bees and butterflies, mainly swallowtails but usually a few Monarchs. Not this year. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen Monarch butterflies in New Jersey this year, all in gardens specifically set up in public or private state natural areas to draw and feed butterflies, including Great Swamp and Scherman Hoffman.
So I was not surprised to receive a September press release from New Jersey Audubon warning the Monarch population has fallen by 90% in the past two years. September has always been a good time to see Monarchs because they are on the move to their southern homes in the mountains of northern Mexico. (It isn't just the birds that have favorite areas to which they return again and again.)
It was during one September afternoon years ago when we saw Monarchs heading south to Monhegan Island over Gulf of Maine as our boat headed north to the mainland. (I rescued several Monarchs from spider webs while on the island.) During another September trip, to Sandy Hook, NJ, my husband walked through a field of goldenrod and clouds of Monarchs rose as he passed. I regret I had no camera to record the magical scene as I walked behind. New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Observatory has been monitoring Monarch migration for 25 Septembers.
New Jersey Audubon supports several bills now in the New Jersey Legislature to help Monarchs survive.
Legislation? For butterflies?
Well, yes. “Butterfly population decline is an important indicator of ecosystem health,” said NJ Audubon’s press release quoting Assemblyman Timothy Eustace, D-Bergen and Passaic, sponsor of several of the bills. “Drastic reductions in certain species of bee and bat populations have demonstrated there are unforeseen consequences to a single species decline, and this legislation lends a helping hand to Monarchs.”
Unlike other butterflies, the Monarch has particular needs. Monarchs need milkweed, a perennial plant that grows in fields, creating pink flowers that, when pollinated, form large seed heads. Monarch adults feed on the flowers’ nectar while Monarch caterpillars eat the leaves. The seed heads pop open and each seed is attached to a silk thread that acts as a sort of parachute to carry the seed to an area where it will grow.
Unfortunately, the more New Jersey paves over its fields for roads and housing, the less likely that seed will find a suitable place to grow. Milkweed has declined thanks to overuse of herbicides in agriculture and loss of agricultural lands and open space - including roadsides - to development.
Homeowners compound the problem by their obsessions with their lawns, mowing whether they need it or not and hitting them with chemicals to kill the insects (beneficial as well as harmful) and "weeds" -- the wildflowers that, in some cases, are helpful to the survival of birds, bees and butterflies.
New Jersey is not known for its high standards of environmental protection. It has more people and more roads packed into a small space than any other state in this country. The prevailing wisdom is "I got mine, keep yours away from me." That extends to landscaping. In my town, for instance, disturbing the “park-like setting” of my front lawn in my neighborhood would get me fined.
That’s why there are times you have to legislate to encourage better human behavior. The Private Wildlife Habitat Certification bill (A3133) would provide homeowners with an "affirmative defense" against nuisance complaints and code violations arising from "providing habitat for wildlife by way of native vegetation that provides sources of nectar, seeds and berries," according to the press release.
Other bills would provide resources and coordination for planting milkweed on public lands and parks, and "focus efforts on drainage basins that could provide ideal growth opportunities for milkweed in otherwise unused areas," again according to New Jersey Audubon..
There is also a bill that would keep towns and the state from mowing down what open fields there are in this state before useful plants can flower (for the bees and butterflies) and go to seed (for the birds). To me this is akin to measures that encourage and protect more grasslands to boost the state populations of bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows and dickcissels, which have also lost habitat. It would also help greatly if we approved the state measure guaranteeing a funding source for the state's Open Space program before all the money runs out.
Unfortunately, the problem isn't confined to New Jersey, or even the United States. Monarch populations in Mexico have declined for the same reason as in New Jersey -- the burning down and clearing of forests and the overuse of herbacides. Climate change is another factor, with unusual freezing temperatures and heavier rain having an effect.
I know these butterflies are tough, but they are not that tough.
So let's you and I start with putting in more milkweed and other beneficial plants in the backyard, stop using herbacides and other harmful chemicals if we must have a lawn and appreciate the needs of the other creatures who share this world with us.
We all benefit in the long run.