The golden amber tone of monarch butterfly wings is one of the highlights of Michigan summers. Many of us enjoy watching their distinctive flight as they flutter through the sky, looking for the perfect landing spot. Unfortunately, these jewel-colored beauties have been in decline. In just two decades, the population has dropped to an estimated 3.6% of what it once was. The Michigan population went from 384 million in 1996 to just 14 million in 2013. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service convened to assess the monarch butterfly’s status in 2020, but like many things that year, it was pushed aside for higher-priority listing actions. 

The monarch butterfly is now considered a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act, and they are currently protected by the Candidate Conservation Agreement. While monarchs don’t formally have an endangered status, they are at serious risk. 

The primary reason for their endangered status is the decline of milkweed, which serves as their primary source of nourishment, and it is where they lay their eggs. Adults drink the nectar of its flowers, and their caterpillars feed on the leaves. Milkweed grows in the wild, but the use of weed killers and the destruction of prairie grasslands to develop lawns has killed off a significant portion. Grasslands and prairies are disappearing faster than any other habitat in North America.

The restoration of milkweed is key to strengthening the population of monarch butterflies. There are several projects underway that help monarchs by spreading milkweed seeds. You can help by planting milkweed in your garden and supporting the maintenance of native biodiversity. Please note that milkweed sap is poisonous to pets, which should be considered when selecting a planting spot. 

Beauty isn’t the only thing these butterflies offer. They’re also pollinators responsible for roughly a third of the world’s food source. With bees also decreasing in population, the disappearance of the monarch is an indicator that other pollinators will likely follow suit.  

Monarch butterflies are unique in that they’re the only butterflies to make a two-way migration across the country, similar to birds. Once it starts getting cold, typically between August and October, monarchs leave Michigan and fly south to Mexico. The life cycle of the monarch is only about a month, so it takes several generations to make the migration north to Michigan again in the spring. It’s a journey spanning 2,500 miles. We typically see about two or three generations just in their time in Michigan. Despite never knowing our state, they instinctively know to come here. This innate wisdom is pretty incredible. 

The butterfly’s scientific name is Danaus plexippus, meaning “sleepy transformation” in Greek. After existing as a yellow, black, and white-striped caterpillar for about two weeks, the monarch spins a silken chrysalis around itself. The metamorphosis is complete in eight to twelve days, when it will emerge as a butterfly. Light, temperature, and humidity play a critical role in their development, so severe changes in climate patterns could also impact the monarchs.

The fate of the monarch butterfly should concern all of us. The species can be saved from an endangered status with conservation efforts. Land development for human occupation may have harmed the monarch population, but we can also use our knowledge of wildlife ecosystems to help them. Plant a monarch milkweed habitat and native flower garden to help all pollinators. Spread information about the importance of conservation efforts. We can make it happen if everyone does their part.