Being a Better Friend to Butterflies

by Bill Clark

A butterfly’s life is fragile at the best of times. But these are hardly the best of times. Indeed, all the indicators and experts agree: The butterflies are now enduring very serious challenges. Extinction is overtaking them in the distant forests of Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea, as well as in the British countryside, the Mexican hill country, the Northern Great Plains, southern Florida, and our own backyards.

Among American butterflies, the Zestos skipper and the Xerces blue are already extinct. Experts are braced for the loss of the Poweshiek skipperling and the Dakota skipper in the very near future. There is also trepidation that even the majestic monarch butterfly faces an uncertain future.

The monarch, with its astonishing 3,000-mile seasonal migration, is as unique as it is beautiful. But its vulnerability to habitat destruction, industrial chemicals, and the agroindustry also make it tragically representative of many other butterflies that once made our summers a delight of gossamer delicacy and flitting color.

Monarchs can still be found across nearly all of the United States. But their numbers have declined precipitously. Most experts agree that America has lost more than 80 percent of its monarch butterflies over the past 20 years. Much of the loss has occurred in the rarely seen furrows of industrial farmlands that grow genetically modified corn and soybeans—mostly to feed livestock.

Once upon a time, monarchs, corn, and soybeans coexisted rather well. That was because tangles of milkweed were left to grow between the rows of crops. Milkweed is vital for the survival of monarch butterflies. The females will deposit their eggs only on milkweed, and the caterpillars that hatch from those eggs can feed only on milkweed. Adult monarchs also include milkweed nectar in their diet. Thus, if we kill all the milkweed, we kill all the monarchs.

But milkweed also takes nutrients from the earth and raindrops from the air. Many efficiency-driven farmers are disinclined to share these resources with weeds and bugs, even if they are harmless and quite beautiful.

Enter genetic engineering and industrial chemicals. Genetic manipulation has recently produced corn and soybeans that are highly resistant to industrial herbicides, particularly glyphosate. So today, farmers can splash the chemical liberally across their fields, vanquish all the weeds, and harvest all the GMO corn and soybeans.

This has been accomplished across about 165 million acres of the United States over the past two decades. That’s an area about the size of Texas and comprises about one-third of the habitat once available for monarchs.

Don’t blame the agroindustry alone, though. State and county highway departments from coast to coast have been zealous in mowing the weeds that once sprouted along the sides of roads and highways. Retailers have created sprawling malls surrounded by asphalt parking lots, often festooned with inedible evergreens. American suburbanites alone have cultivated about 40.5 million acres of mostly milkweed-free lawns. There’s hardly a secure place left for a milkweed to sprout. Recalling Walt Kelly’s incomparable Pogo Possum: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Those monarchs that do manage to survive the summer in the United States straggle off toward the oyamel fir forests in the mountains of Mexico for the winter, where they are now encountering another problem: global warming. Monarchs are adapted to cluster among the oyamel fir trees on the cool high slopes above 6,900 feet. But those altitudes aren’t so cool any more. Global warming is raising the temperature, and the oyamel firs aren’t doing so well. Mexico has responded by creating a Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve to provide legal protection for the habitat, and Mexican foresters are scampering to plant more oyamel fir seedlings at higher (and cooler) elevations.

Many people would like to see the United States take more assertive action, but to date, not much has been accomplished. A petition before the US Fish and Wildlife Service requests that the monarch butterfly be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity (which filed the petition) says a threatened listing would “help focus conservation attention on the species, and also address some of the big-picture changes to the land that are happening due to intensive agriculture in the US.” Federal response to the petition has been less than expeditious. And other experts don’t expect much substantive action from the government even if a threatened listing is achieved.

But all is not lost. Butterfly enthusiasts, disappointed with both the government and agroindustry, can quite literally take matters into their own hands. On a fresh spring morning, they can journey off to the local garden shop—especially those that specialize in native plants—and buy an armful of milkweeds. Plant them in the sunshine and keep them well watered until they’re established. Don’t mind if a gaggle of brightly colored monarch caterpillars chew up some of the foliage.

A bit of research can identify other butterfly-friendly native plants. Glorious goldenrod, the nemesis of the formal garden, is floral hospitality for many butterflies. Purple coneflowers, black-eyed susans, dogbane, ironweed, and even dandelions are culinary banquets for a wide variety of butterflies. Plant them in your garden, too! Certainly, we can sacrifice a bit of our lawn as a gesture of goodwill to a delightful butterfly that the government may or may not—depending upon which way the wind is blowing—decide to protect.

Urbanites are also welcome! Milkweed is generally robust (after all, it is a “weed”), and can thrive when planted in a properly drained coffee can sitting on a window sill. Don’t like the idea of cultivating weeds? Then try parsley and dill—black swallowtail butterflies dine well on these.

And don’t think there aren’t any butterflies in the big city. You just need to look. Jeff Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) confirms that at least twenty-five species of butterflies have been identified in Manhattan—including the beguiling eastern tiger swallowtail. “I’ve seen them there myself!” he insists.

Gardeners—rural, suburban, or urban—keen on some hands-on help for the butterflies would do well to visit NABA’s website:, which has abundant guidance on butterfly gardening and related topics.

Quoth the estimable Dr. Glassberg: “If we can save butterflies, we can save ourselves.”