Arizona scientists play role in saving the monarch butterfly

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click image to zoomIna WarrenTwo monarch butterflies sucking nectar on Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. Of the 73 species of native milkweeds, this one is the most important for the monarch butterfly. University of Arizona researchers are playing a leading role in an unprecedented effort to save America's most iconic butterfly, the monarch.

Due to loss of habitat for milkweed – the sole food plant of the caterpillars – populations of this important pollinator have plummeted in recent years, leaving the monarch in dire straits.

Laura Lopez-Hoffman, an assistant professor in the UA's School of Natural Resources and the Environment, and Gary Nabhan, who holds the W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at the UA's Southwest Center, are helping bring together researchers, agencies, non-governmental organizations and grassroots movements to design and implement a recovery plan for the butterflies.

Experts say the monarch population will continue to decline if the loss of habitat for milkweed continues unabated. In addition, large-scale restoration of milkweed plants will be necessary to offset the losses of habitat that have occurred over the last 15 years.

To counteract this trend, leaders in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. agreed to launch a concerted effort to boost monarch populations. According to Nabhan, who has played a critical role in moving the monarch recovery plan forward, the effort involves habitat recovery on one of the biggest scales ever undertaken for an insect species in the history of North America.

"Arizona and the UA play a strategic role in this international effort because there is a wealth of expertise here of people who have worked on cross-border migratory issues, and also because Arizona is one of the most milkweed-rich states in the country," said Nabhan, who heads the Make Way for Monarchs alliance.

Each fall, millions of monarchs follow an internal compass guiding them along a route from the Great Plains in the U.S. to a patch of forest in the mountains about 70 miles west of Mexico City, clinging to trees in fluttering clusters of black and orange.

While overwintering monarchs covered 45 acres of forest in 1996, that area shrunk to a little more than a football field-size area in 2013, according to data collected by the World Wildlife Fund. Once blamed on deforestation in the Mexican wintering grounds, the catastrophic decline has recently been shown to be due to the disappearance of milkweed plants, which have declined by 58 percent in Plains states from 1999 to 2010. During the same time, monarch populations dropped 81 percent. An estimated 1.5 billion milkweeds have likely been lost from the summer breeding grounds in the Midwest and Southwest over the last two decades, according to Nabhan.

Along their migration path, which the monarchs complete over three to four generations, the butterflies depend on a steady supply of these plants, whose numbers have been dwindling in the wake of intensive farming. Following incentives of the Farm Bill signed into law earlier this year, many farmers plant biofuel crops on formerly fallow lands that played important roles as native habitat, and the more widespread use of herbicides has dealt further blows to the butterflies' food supply.

Lopez-Hoffman, who also is an assistant research professor at the UA's Udall Center for Public Policy Studies, has assembled a research group at the UA, including Ruscena Wiederholt, an assistant research scientist in School of Natural Resources and the Environment, that will help improve management practices to support monarch populations.

"We are going to develop a computer simulation of how the migration occurs, and that will help us understand where the loss of habitat is particularly causing problems," said Lopez-Hoffman, who is also an assistant research professor at the Udall Center for Public Policy Studies.

The monarch recovery plan calls for replanting milkweed along the migratory routes.

"The idea is to build corridors for monarch migration," Lopez-Hoffman said. "Right now, there are too many open questions. For example, where should the milkweed plants be located along the route, and how far apart do they need be spaced so the butterflies can find them? Our simulations will hopefully provide answers."

Another open question is whether sufficient seed stock is available for habitat restoration to represent a diverse variety of the 73 species of milkweed plants that occur in the U.S.

"We don't want to plant one type of milkweed from coast to coast," said Nabhan, who is currently working with industry partners and NGOs to ramp up seed production.

The recovery plan includes many groups from the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Within the group that is developing the science for the recovery, Nabhan and Lopez-Hoffman are collaborating with participants from universities including the University of Maryland, the University of Missouri, the University of Northern Iowa, Iowa state University, the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the University of Kansas. The effort also involves the U.S. Geological Survey, scientists from the Monarch Joint Venture, other NGOs, plus seed companies and other agencies.

Local partners in the recovery effort are the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in the College of Science, including the Tumamoc Hill Laboratory for Plants and People; and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The National Phenology Network, which is based at the UA and funded by the U.S. Geological Survey, will coordinate emerging efforts to involve citizen scientists in monitoring milkweed and monarch.

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El Dorado, Calif.  |  June, 25, 2014 at 07:23 PM

The Monarch Butterfly is not in trouble. Just 2 months from now I will be shooting videos of swarms of Monarch butterflies on the Monsanto farmlands of southern Minnesota and Iowa just like these swarm videos I shot there in 2011 and 2010:

David Axe    
Columbia, SC  |  June, 27, 2014 at 11:56 AM

Paul, you're wrong. Multiple scientific surveys of Monarch populations over more than a decade have charted a major decline. Your anecdotes don't change the overall picture.

Christian Johnson    
MN  |  June, 26, 2014 at 12:51 PM

We welcome you to visit the Save Our Monarchs (, a new foundation established to bring back our monarch butterfly. Visitors can order free milkweed seeds directly on our website!

El Dorado, Calif.  |  June, 27, 2014 at 02:18 PM

David, what's important is that 1000's of upper Midwestern farmers know that 10,000,000's of monarchs still occur on their lands because there are still 1,000,000,000's of milkweed plants that grow in 100,000's of miles of their farm road ditches. So whatever comparatively microscopically small amounts of milkweed these Univ. of Arizona folks plant will not increase the size of the monarch migratory population by even 1/100th of one percent. My job is to obtain the video footage that shows the monarch butterfly is still spectacularly abundant...especially, ironically, on the Monsanto farmlands of the upper Midwest

New Sharon, ME  |  June, 30, 2014 at 09:01 PM

Paul, I'm glad to hear that you've found a lively population somewhere. However, in the Northeast, the occurence of Monarchs has had dramatic decline in the last two decades. It began in the mid- to late-90's when two winters in a row brought frost to the overwintering valley in Mexico and killed millions of butterflies. Following this severe decline in population, new hazards appeared: particularly Bt corn, which left toxic pollen on milkweed surrounding fields, and some loss of habitat (per this article). I agree that their plan is pretty lame, and it would seem that without decreasing the Bt toxicity of the corn belt portion of the migratory route, major comebacks would be slow in coming. For years, we collected chrysalis's every summer to watch the hatch, but have only had one year in the last 15 where we could find any. Further, there have been some years that we have not even had a sighting! Hoping always this will change...

Paul Cherubini    
July, 01, 2014 at 03:00 PM

Tony, there were swarms of monarchs in the northeast as recently as Sept. 2012:

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