Sightings of Free-range Monarchs* in Southern Wisconsin Are Rare So Far This Year


Female monarch on showy blazing-star (Liatris ligulistylis).

Female monarch on showy blazing-star (Liatris ligulistylis) seen on Saturday August 13, 2016 in Madison, WI at the DMNA prairie planting at Glenway and the SW Bike Path.

But reports of sightings have increased in the second and third weeks of August.

Sightings of monarchs are few and far between here in southern Wisconsin.  I saw my first monarch of the season on Friday August 12 in a prairie restoration near Cross Plains, Wisconsin.  Then I saw the one (the photo above) the next day (Saturday the 13th) in a community/neighborhood prairie planting on the west side of Madison.  The following day, Sunday morning, three monarchs–two females and one male–were gathering nectar on prairie plants in a second community/neighborhood prairie planting along a commuter bike path.

That’s it; the sum total of monarchs I’ve seen this year.  No monarch eggs or monarch caterpillars, either.  These disappointing results, despite searching high and low, far and wide on milkweed plants in my yard, the gardens of neighbors, and in prairie plantings along the SW Bike Path.

By comparison, last year (2015) I saw my first monarch of the season on July 26 and saw monarchs frequently through the summer.

Similar Observations Elsewhere

And it’s not just in Wisconsin where the monarchs are scarce this year.  I spent a day in mid-July touring The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands in north central Illinois as part of the 24th North American Prairie Conference.  Neither myself or the dozens of other prairie enthusiasts on the tour saw a single monarch.

Others in the midwest also report few sightings of monarchs.  For example, Dr. Michael Jeffords, retired entomologist from the University of Illinois Prairie Research Institute, Illinois Natural History Survey has seen few monarchs this year.  Although retired, he spends his time in the field.  He travels the state of Illinois searching for an photographing insects, especially butterflies.   He told the 24th North American Prairie Conference in Normal Illinois, in a presentation on July 18 that from June  until now, he had seen just two monarchs.  In Dr. Jeffords’ view “nothing is common anymore”, citing the declines of several other once-abundant species.  Dr. Jeffords blames habitat loss, and the fact that there are so many events that can negatively impact the monarch along its migratory route and in its wintering grounds in Mexico.

Similar distressing reports come from Monarch Watch.  In his July 7, 2016 Monarch Population Status summary, Chip Taylor reports that:

“Unfortunately, in the words of Yogi Berra – “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” Meaning that all the data to this point in time suggest that this year will be a repeat of 2014 with a significant decline in the migration and the overwintering numbers.”

Chip’s analysis or, as he says, “guesswork”

“suggests that the largest numbers of monarchs will be produced from the eastern Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, southern Wisconsin and Michigan, northern Illinois with lower production as one moves eastward from Illinois. Numbers will be down in Pennsylvania, New York and most of the East north of Maryland.”

Rescuing and Rearing a Few Monarch Caterpillars

What can be done to help the monarch?

Individuals throughout the midwest are taking a direct approach by bringing the vulnerable monarch eggs and caterpillars into their homes to safeguard them for the 30 days or so to rear a monarch from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis and finally to a butterfly.

I tried this for the first time last year.    After seeing monarch eggs and caterpillars fall prey to predators and disease over the past few years, I, like many others, decided to step in and help.

By the end of July last year, I began finding monarch eggs on milkweed plants in my garden.  I took them inside to care for in the safety of a netted rearing chamber; the survival rate in the wild for these little creatures is estimated to be 10%, so they are generally better off inside  and away from predators and diseases.

Mine was a fairly small-scale, mom and pop operation.  By this date (August 14) last year I had in the rearing chamber two chrysalis and six more eggs or caterpillars–six of the eight eggs/caterpillars went on to produce adult butterflies–a survival rate of 75%.  They were all released in time for them to join the fall migration to Mexico.

Free-range versus captive breeding

* Free-range monarchs, in my view, are those individuals that complete their life cycle with little direct help from humans.  Human assistance may include raising a few monarchs from eggs or caterpillars–a very vulnerable stage of life–to reduce or prevent mortality due to diseases and predators.  In this scenario,  the butterfly is released as soon after emerging from the chrysalis, as its wings are dry.  The monarch release usually happens in a few hours.

The opposite of free-range monarchs are those butterflies that are raised in Monarch Mills–those factory-like settings that breed and rear monarchs in captivity using assembly line techniques.   Monarch mills can produce vast quantities of caterpillars and monarchs for educational use in schools or for sale to specimen collectors.  Breeding adult monarchs may never be released to the wild.

Monarch butterfly on Showy Blazizingstar

Monarch butterfly on Showy Blazizing-star in 2013 in the Odana Road Prairie in Madison, WI.

Habitat preservation and restoration are key

Producing monarchs for release to the wild is a positive action but this step alone is not likely to save the monarchs.  Having lots of monarchs on the wing will not increase the over-wintering population in Mexico if the little creatures don’t have food to eat and a place to stay overnight on their way south.  Habitat restoration and creation along its migratory route will help.   Planting of more milkweeds, and native nectar plants along roadsides, in city parks, and in rural areas is important.  These initiatives are being done all over the midwest and especially in cities such as Madison.  A good example of this are the extensive plantings of native flowers and grasses along the SW Bike Path.

The bee and butterfly garden at Commonwealth Avenue and the SW Bike Path.

The bee and butterfly garden at Commonwealth Avenue and the SW Bike Path.

Here is to everyone who is doing their part to help the free-range monarchs.

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About Steve Glass

The blogger is a restoration ecologist practicing and writing in the Midwestern United States.
This entry was posted in Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood Association, Glenway Prairie, Milkweed, Monarch butterfly, Monarch migration and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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