She is the queen of butterflies. The most iconic and traveler of all.The migratory monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is the first in the collective imagination, with beautiful orange wings and a tabby pattern that scares its predators. But what makes it the best known is the journey that the insect makes, barely 0.4 grams, from the United States and Canada to Mexico.
335,479 specimens this year
In those 4,000 kilometers the dangers they face are infinite. For a few years now, climate change has compromised its fluttering. Although according to the 26th Annual Thanksgiving Count of the Western Monarch, carried out by the Xerces Society, in California, the population increased slightly to 335,479 specimens, experts raise alarms about the threats that threaten the habitats that transit.
The migration of the butterfly to the Mexican forests
This number represents an increase from last year’s total (in which 247,237 were counted), but is below the goal of a five-year annual average of 500,000 monarchs needed for the recovery of the species, which is in the Red List of Threatened Species in the endangered category (there are only two others above it: critically endangered and extinct).
“The results of this count are cause for celebration,” Emma Pelton, a conservation biologist with the Xerces Society, said in a statement. “A second consecutive year of relatively positive numbers gives us hope that there is still time to save your migration. But we know we still have a long way to go to catch up, and with recent storms hitting the area, it means we’ll start the spring with much less than this total count.”
The population of the migratory monarch butterfly has been reduced between 22% and 72% during the last decade, warns the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Rebeca Quiñonez-Piñón, National Wildlife Federation Monarch Recovery Strategist, is even more precise: “Two years ago, this number dropped by almost 99%. There were only 1,914 reports. There was great concern about such an alarming trend. We thought it wouldn’t pick up anyway.” In 1997, there were more than 1.2 million of these insects.
Gonzalo Andrade, professor and director of the Institute of Natural Sciences of the National University of Colombia, places the first impacts of climate change on this species 15 years ago. And, although he details how resistant the butterfly itself is, he points out that the destruction of their ecosystems makes it difficult for them to survive. “When torrential rains break out, more snow than estimated falls, heat waves occur… All of this changes the conditions that the butterfly needs. It has nowhere to breed and nowhere to spend the winter.”
According to the Xerces Society, extreme weather that caused flooding in California damaged the base of the trees that monarchs use to congregate during the winter. They broke away from their roots and forced them to move to other areas in search of a new refuge.
For Quiñonez-Piñón, in addition to the destruction of habitats, which hinders access to breeding areas or the nectar they need, the excessive use of pesticides has also been key to the loss of these insects. In Mexico, one of the main threats to the species is illegal logging, which is decimating the trees in which they hibernate. In fact, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve reported a loss of forest cover last year due to clandestine logging of 13.9 hectares, up from 13.3 in 2021.
Conservation of ecosystems
That is why experts agree that forces must be focused on the conservation of ecosystems. Quiñonez-Piñón celebrates projects such as the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act and The Monarch Act 2021, which promote restoration and damage mitigation in transit areas. “We cannot relax with the legislation,” he states.
For citizens there are also “duties”. “One of the key points is awareness,” he explains. “Many of the wintering grounds in Canada are located in private locations and individuals need to get on board.” In addition, encourage responsible gardening by neighbors by planting native milkweed and nectar plants, necessary for monarch caterpillars and adults. If they disappear, he warns, “it’s everyone’s loss.”