Local News
5:00 am
Wed September 4, 2013

A Summer Without Monarch Butterflies

A monarch butterfly at the Boston Nature Center
Credit Mass Audubon Society

No matter where you've been this summer- at a local park, hiking a trail, or relaxing by the water-there's a part of nature visibly missing. This time of year, we usually see orange and black wings fluttering all around the Northeast, but these days scientists are trying to figure out why there's been a disappearance of monarch butterflies.

Ten-year-old girls – their hair in ponytails and their arms covered in friendship bracelets – are transfixed on something in a cage…

“If you see closely you can see the gold around it. And Monarch butterflies are pretty big.”

That’s 10-year-old Jamie who is with her friend Delia. They’re taking in a tiny exhibit at the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Boston Nature Center in Mattapan. 

Children look at the one monarch pupa at the Boston Nature Center this year.
Credit Anne Mostue / WGBH

“It looks like an oval shape and it’s lightish green. Monarchs become really big and they become orange and their wing span is pretty large compared to other butterflies.”

This chrysalis of a monarch they're looking at is in a cage, and it is the only one at the Boston Nature Center this year. Last summer, there were more than 50 fat, green pupas dangling motionless from branches in the exhibit cages and the nearby butterfly garden. Wild monarchs – with wingspans of about 3 and a half inches - stopped to feed and lay eggs on the milkweed plants.

Boston Nature Center naturalist Andrew MacBlane said he's seen fewer monarch butterflies this year.

“Compared to previous summers, it is completely a drastic change. Previous summers the entire butterfly garden is teeming with monarchs.” The Boston Nature Center tags monarchs annually. The one pupa at the Nature Center this year will be released in the fall, assuming it reaches adulthood in captivity. 

“We raise them and we’ve had at least a dozen that we’re monitoring and observing through their life cycle, all the way up until we release them. But unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet."

Scientists with the national organization Monarch Watch reported a 59 percent decrease in the monarch population from 2011 to 2012. It’s not clear why, but appears to be a combination of factors – climate change, pesticides, lack of milkweed plant habitats. And it could be a cyclical decline in population. 

A monarch chrysalis at the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan
Credit Anne Mostue / WGBH

“I try to stay optimistic. I hope that’s it’s just a fluke, change in the weather, I’m not sure. But I look forward to next summer just to see if it’s just a natural cycle,” MacBlane said.

Volunteer gardener and monarch enthusiast Karen First is part of an international group of teachers who use the butterflies in their classrooms and monitor the species.

“It’s a wonderful metaphor – both the transformation and the journey are really powerful parts of the story. Monarchs really link 3 countries together – they link Canada, the United States and Mexico together. They don’t know the borders.”

First has found two caterpillars, which she protects in a jar and feeds milkweed.

“What’s special about the Monarch is that late summer generation – if we see them now – take this amazing journey over 2,000 miles to a specific spot in the mountains of Mexico, spend the winter, mate in February, and make their way back up to Texas. So they’ll live until February or March.”

First’s concern about the disappearance of monarch butterflies has intensified. And she’s not alone. Scientists and conservation organizations are drawing attention to the Mexican forests the butterflies occupy. Logging is reducing habitat, and so is the disappearance of milkweed in the U.S.

“Usually in the summer my dining room table is full of cages and I’m raising monarchs to share with other teachers," First said. "And everywhere I look, nothing. Nothing. And this is also what I hear from other people who care for Monarchs too. Not just here but all over the country.”

It's not all bad news. There is something you can do to help. The Mass Audobon Society recommends planting milkweed to feed and house the Monarch population. The caterpillars start out small, white with yellow and black stripes and dark tentacles. If they appear in your garden, chances are they’ll try to come back again next summer.