Did you know that the state insect of Texas is the monarch butterfly? The monarch butterfly became the Texas state insect by a 1995 resolution of the Legislature. The resolution was introduced by then-Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, on behalf of students in her district just south of Fort Worth.
The monarch is unique among butterflies in that it is the only species of butterfly that does not hibernate but migrates in changing seasons.
Like all butterflies, it undergoes four changes in form (metamorphoses) during its lifetime.
It begins as a tiny egg.
In the second stage it becomes a black, yellow and white striped caterpillar (larva). During this stage, the caterpillar sheds its skin (molts) up to four times as it grows to its full length of about 2 inches.
In its third stage, the monarch forms a protective covering called a chrysalis or pupa. This pupa is shiny and green with gold speckles.
In its final stage, the monarch emerges from the pupa as a beautiful black and orange butterfly.
This entire process takes about a month. There are usually three to four generations of monarchs produced each year.
Usually, hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies, each weighing less than a paperclip, travel from Canada to Mexico (and back again) — the longest insect migration on Earth.
This year, monarchs are in trouble and need help. Texas A&M professor Craig Wilson says monarchs this year number about 141.5 million as compared with 300 million last year.
Western monarchs, who live west of the Rocky Mountains and overwinter in Southern California, have decreased by almost 90% since numbers have been collected in 1993.
Eastern monarchs, which make up the largest population in North America, dropped to their lowest numbers in 2014 but have increased some since conservation methods were started. These overwinter in Mexico.
The butterfly’s life cycle is exquisitely synchronized to the seasonal growth of milkweed, the only plant its larvae will eat. In a game of hopscotch, successive generations of monarchs follow the emergence of milkweed from Mexico to as far north as Canada.
Generally, a major flyway follows Interstate 35. Communities like ours are especially encouraged to help the effort to increase numbers of monarchs and other butterflies. The hardy plant once flourished in grasslands, roadsides, abandoned lots and cornfields across much of the continent. It fueled a mass migration that ended each winter with more than 60 million butterflies converging on pine forests in the Sierra Madres.
The monarch population sank while agriculture boomed. More than a million acres of upper Midwest grassland have been plowed under in recent years for corn and soybean fields — a rate of loss comparable to deforestation in places like Brazil and Indonesia. Demand for these crops has surged with the rise of biofuels.
For monarchs, the most important development was Roundup Ready corn and soybeans. These genetically modified crops have risen to dominance in the Midwest. Designed to withstand dousing from the Monsanto company’s Roundup weed killer, the plants enabled farmers to swiftly kill competing weeds, including milkweed, while leaving their crops untouched. In 2013, 83% of all corn and 93% of soybeans in the United States were herbicide-tolerant, totaling nearly 155 million acres, much of it in the Midwest, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
It’s no coincidence monarchs faltered at the same time. Karen Oberhauser, a conservation biologist at the University of Minnesota, estimated that as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn and soybeans spread across the Midwest, the amount of milkweed in farm fields fell by more than 80%. Oberhauser determined that the loss of milkweed almost exactly mirrored the decline in monarch egg production.
Already, Iowa farmland has lost more than 98% of the milkweed that was once there, according to Iowa State University biologist John Pleasants, who worked with Oberhauser. He’s seen firsthand the transformation as he has studied cornfields during the past decade and a half. Before Roundup, patches of milkweed grew among the corn and along the edges of fields. After the herbicide, nothing but corn.
Monarchs have other factors to blame as well. There have been several years of unusual spring weather in the United States. In 2012 it was hotter than normal, and the following year it was colder, disrupting the insects’ northward migration. Continuing warmth into late fall discourages the monarchs from migration until it is too late. Warm springs can start migration early, leading them into late cold fronts.
What can be done?
Plant more milkweed. Any milkweed is good; native milkweeds are best. The Native Plant Society of Texas awards small grants to nature centers, schools, educational groups and others to help fund development of monarch demonstration gardens or monarch way stations using native plants on public sites in Texas. The purpose of this program is to educate the public about monarch conservation and to encourage restoration of monarch habitats throughout the Texas migration flyway.
Migrating monarchs feed heavily in the spring and fall along the way to give them energy to make the trip. These adults feed on a range of nectar plants to build up strength and fat to last on their journey. Plant nectar plants like zinnia, butterfly weed, Mexican sunflowers, coneflower and others in your yard, on your patio, in community gardens and anywhere else you can. Encourage others to do the same.
Stop using pesticides and herbicides. These chemicals damage all kinds of beneficial insects as well as butterflies, not to mention people and other creatures.
Petition lawmakers to act. Listing monarchs as endangered species or as threatened species can help protect some of their territory from further destruction. Several petitions have been put together, or you can write directly to your legislators to help bring back the monarchs.