March 2023: The eastern monarch population estimate has just been announced: a 22% decrease from last season in an area covering 2.21 hectares, or roughly 5.46 acres. For reference, a football field is about 1.3 acres.
Over the past few years, these estimates have taken us on an emotional rollercoaster, but the biggest lesson I’ve learned following these danaus data dumps is that…this estimate can be wildly inaccurate.
Look no further than 2018’s curiously low estimate as an example:
From spring 2018 through the fall migration, sightings were way up for the eastern population, including spectators seeing clusters of migrating monarchs in trees….virtually unheard of during the spring migration.
So how could this estimate have been so wrong?
Scientists measure the population in hectares but one hectare can hold between 10 and 50 million monarchs…that creates a massive margin of error. And consider this..
It took decades for searching scientists to find the monarchs’ overwintering grounds…how far-fetched is it that there could still be hidden populations of overwintering monarchs between central Mexico and the southern US?
Other questions to ponder when considering the accuracy of the eastern population estimate:
- Are more monarchs overwintering in the southern and coastal regions of the eastern US?
- What implications does drought have in Texas and further south into Mexico?
- Are pesticide use and mosquito spraying during the fall migration killing off more monarchs? ☠️
- What’s ultimately more important for the 2023 monarchs: Overwintering Population Estimate or Spring Migration Weather Patterns?
- Are researchers using advances in technology to increase count reliability?
- Are there potentially low-tech counting solutions that could provide better accuracy? e.g.: counting monarch eggs or larvae each spring?
While the ‘analog’ tagging of butterflies provides data on known overwintering destinations, digital advances could teach us more about flight behavior and potential alternative migration destinations in the coming years.
2018’s low population estimate ended up being unexpected good news for the eastern monarchs, but an unnecessary source of worry to their passionate support network.
So, don’t expect pinpoint accuracy from an inaccurate counting method…in mid-April, compare the first adult sightings maps on journey north for 2022 compared to previous seasons to see if this forecast adds up? Make sure to only include data for past seasons only up to the date of the current year…for example, through 5/23.
In the meantime, here are more reasons to be hopeful for the monarchs in 2023 and beyond…
The Monarch Movement
While monarch numbers have plunged over the past 2 decades, North America’s interest in their recovery has surged to an all time high.
The power of our community (magnified by social media) has brought monarchs to the forefront of wildlife conservation, and more people are taking an active role in supporting monarchs through gardening, raising butterflies, and getting involved with organizations that support monarch conservation.
Before we get started, you need to know what the monarchs are up against…
The Pollinator Problem
The North American monarch population has been in a dangerous decline over the past two decades.
Most of us are familiar with the usual suspects for the monarchs’ population decline: habitat destruction, pollinator-killing pesticides, milkweed-killing herbicides, climate change and extreme weather conditions, etc. Weather control is not an option (at this point) and stopping others’ pesticide use (barring national legislation) often proves futile, although we should embrace opportunities to respectfully educate others.
Until (and probably even after) there is irrefutable proof that specific pesticides and herbicides are killing off beneficial insects and pollinators, farmers will choose the needs of their families and businesses over the needs of milkweed butterflies.
Why not focus on the problems and solutions that you have direct control over?
5 Ways to Save Monarchs + Make This Your Best Monarch Season Ever
1. Start Growing Early
An early jump-start for your garden can be accomplished in a variety of ways starting with fall planting plants. You can also overwinter plants like tropical milkweed and take cuttings to start new plants indoors.
If those ideas sound like too much work (or it’s too late), you can always purchase plants in spring from local plant sales, nurseries, or online vendors selling both milkweed plants and nectar flowers.
Buy plants from nurseries that have their own greenhouses or can guarantee no monarch-killing pesticides have been used on your plants. We buy most of our plants from locally-sourced plant sales.
However, when local resources can’t provide you with exactly what you want, someone online usually can:
Could you find all those options at your local nursery?
2. Expand Your Milkweed Menu
Planting a variety of milkweed plants in your garden, gives you a much better chance to support monarchs throughout the entire butterfly season. Why?…because you’re likelier to always have viable milkweed leaves for caterpillars and nectar that can support adult butterflies.
Having 3-4 varieties is a good goal, but remember to choose varieties that have different growth cycles.
3. Don’t Believe the Native Hype
I try hard not to roll my eyes (with varying degrees of success) when I come across the many articles online that say native plants will always attract and support more pollinators than their non-native counterparts.
Those who actually grow both know this isn’t always true, but some who can only see value in native plants are obsessed with convincing the world otherwise, based on second-hand info from biased books pushing an all-native agenda.
If the fear mongers win, your butterfly garden loses…and so do the butterflies!
I agree that native plants are the cornerstone to a successful garden, but I also believe that non-invasive annual plants are complementary tools that can help you attract and support even more pollinators.
My beliefs are based on my personal experience as a gardener, and talking to other butterfly gardeners across North America who are willing to try new things in a climate-changing world.
We need to recognize the opportunities in all non-invasive plants, instead of dismissing every non-native plant as public enemy #1. Just because something grew there first, doesn’t automatically make it the best solution growing forward.
While ultra-controversial butterfly bush and tropical milkweed can have potential issues in some regions of North America, they are not killing off native plants in droves, nor are they decimating the monarch population.
We need to have honest, informed, solution-based conversations about these controversial topics or they will continue to divide our community.
4. Raise Your Game
Raising monarch through the four stage life cycle (egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, adult) is a great idea for a variety of reasons. It’s educational, fun, inspirational, and it also helps to grow the struggling monarch population. It’s estimated only 1-5% of monarchs survive outdoors.
You can boost those survival odds (once you have a good raising system in place) to over 90%. During the spring and early summer months, this can also help to promote more monarch activity in your butterfly garden.
In the late summer and fall, you can release monarchs that will journey to the California coast or the mountains of central Mexico.
To learn how to raise more monarchs with less effort and at least a 90% survival rate click here
…and check out Monarch Butterfly Life to find monarch habitats, cage liners, floral tubes and other helpful raising butterflies supplies.
5. Finish with a Bang
Once you’ve perfected your raising process over the summer, you have a unique opportunity to help support one of the most amazing wildlife migrations on planet earth…the Monarch Migration.
Each July, I host an online event called Raise the Migration which helps our community members across North America raise and release the final generation of monarchs for their amazing fall migration.
This is an awe-inspiring, educational event for gardeners, schools, homeschoolers, seniors, and nature lovers. If you’re located in southern Canada or the US, you can sign up here to receive this exciting email course in August and September.
Raise The Migration Sign Up (Sign Up starts June 2023)
I’ve personally tried these 5 Monarch Attracting/Supporting Ideas in our home and garden and they’ve substantially increased our monarch visits over the past decade, in spite of the declining butterfly population. I hope these ideas will help in your quest to attract and support monarch butterflies.
Which ideas will you try to help make this your best monarch season ever? Please share your 2023 plans in the comment section below…