I am a gardener and consider myself to be quite observant. I notice the little changes from year to year in a little corner of the earth that is my backyard. I try to tend it carefully, planting trees and shrubs that can feed and shelter the large variety of song birds that come my way. And I am rewarded for my efforts by also attracting fox, coyotes, butterflies, turkeys, chipmunks, deer, owls, eagles, and hawks that also find refuge here.
Because I have been watching this garden now for 27 years, I was alarmed last year when nary a Monarch butterfly could be seen. In recent years, I had noted that fewer and fewer of these beautiful creatures could be found in my flower gardens. My observations correlated well with what I had been hearing in the news about the decline in monarch populations nationwide. Their numbers were dramatically plummeting due to pesticide use, the widespread destruction of their host plant, the milkweed, and habitat loss in the US and in central Mexico, where they overwinter.
Hoping the decline of Monarchs was within our city limits alone, I began looking for Monarchs wherever I went. I became more disturbed when I still could only find a few, even in the wildest places I visited. My heart sank when I began to imagine our lives without these humble and delightful pollinators.
Feeling discouraged and concerned, I began to look for information on websites and in the news. When I discovered that many non-profits and government organizations were working to inform homeowners and farmers about the threat to Monarchs and to encourage citizens to participate in their protection, my sadness changed to hope and delight.
I silently applauded efforts to engage citizen scientists in tracking the movement and numbers of Monarchs across North America. I helped to distribute milkweed seeds among interested colleagues at work, and I cheered when citizens responded in large numbers by planting millions of milkweed seeds.
In St. Paul, where I live, beginning last year, I began noticing milkweed plants coming up all over – along sound walls, in street medians, backyards and community gardens, along roadways and even in alleys. In my neighborhood, a friend took pleasure in releasing hundreds of milkweed seeds in any open spaces he could find, in his act of “guerrilla gardening”.
At first, I was skeptical that these small, individual efforts could add up to make a difference for the butterflies. It turns out, however, that I was wrong. These simple acts have, in fact, supported the comeback of this needed and much-loved pollinator. This summer, for example, I have observed that there are many times more butterflies in my garden than in previous years. Come spring, I will be joining others once again as we spread milkweed seeds in cities and small towns across the country.
According to Monarch Watch, a non-profit dedicated to Monarch conservation, research, and education, in the Upper Midwest, the butterfly migration is expected to be the strongest since 2008, with the real possibility that the overwintering population in Mexico could reach the same numbers they did in that year.
The Monarchs are not out of danger, however. Habitat loss and pesticide use still threaten the species. However, due to collective action, there is reason for hope. By our planting milkweed, protecting their wintering area in Mexico, and reducing pesticides, they might have a fighting chance.
Galvanized Civic Action Makes a Difference.
Saving the Monarchs has been the result of a collaborative civic effort. Many people showed up in quiet and honorable ways to save an attractive insect. Without overstating it, this hopeful improvement in Monarch populations makes me feel quite optimistic and supports my belief that citizens (both inside and outside of government) can work together effectively in saving this amazing planet and in addressing other societal problems.
When people see a need and can directly take on a meaningful role that is constructive and tangible, they are apt to contribute to the cause, regardless of their politics or other beliefs. Let’s pause for a moment and take note of our collective goodness rather than focus solely on what divides us .If we can act together in this way for a butterfly, what else might we be able to do together?
My advice to civic leaders is always to start small. Begin to build momentum and connect the networks of caring individuals you will need to complete your first “baby step”. Create new ideas based on what is working. Expand your vision. Govern your initiatives well. Share decision making authority and assign meaningful roles. If you begin to have success, understand that new resources and funding will often come your way.
The next time you see a Monarch drinking nectar in your garden, be sure to say a silent thank you to all those people who took the first step, believed in the collective power of individuals, and who carefully sowed seeds for our future.
For more information about our Monarch beauties, check out this website: https://monarchwatch.org/blog/