How you can save the monarch butterflies


el rosario-by the pathI was sitting beside a path in the El Rosario Monarch Biosphere Preserve high in the mountains in central Mexico. It was noon, and the sun had finally warmed the air.

As the warmth reached the monarch colonies, which had been hanging from the trees in gray clumps, flashes of orange appeared. Occasionally, an explosion of wings occurred as the butterflies awakened and began fluttering down the mountain in search of food and water. They were all around me—a river of butterflies—alighting on my clothes and hat.

Visitors passed by, but hardly in the numbers I’d expected. El Rosario is, after all, the biggest of several visitor sites in this internationally known monarch biosphere preserve. Mostly, visitors were quiet and respectful. Mostly, they spoke in whispers and stayed a long time watching the ever-changing enchantment.

Hanging gray clumps of butterflies come to life when they are warmed by the sun

Hanging gray clumps of butterflies come to life when they are warmed by the sun

Two older American couples came up the path. I saw the young guide first. With a furrowed brow, he was gently picking up the butterflies that were on the path moving them to the side. Then I saw why. The Americans were oblivious, chatting away about restaurants or golf or their stay at an all-inclusive resort, I can’t remember.  You’ve heard the conversation—the inane chitter-chat that creates a bubble around the participants. The marvels of the earth could be laid in front of them, and they would pass blindly by, engrossed in who said what to whom.

The Americans went on (I don’t think they saw me) to the trail’s end where explosions of butterflies were still sweeping down the mountain. Twenty minutes later, they  tramped back, still chatting and, as far as I could see, unfazed by the miracle they had just witnessed. Mission accomplished. Bucket list item #84. Check.

This really happened, folks, and it’s a metaphor.

The monarchs are disappearing. The year I visited (March 2014) they had reached the lowest numbers ever recorded—and scientists have only known about this place since 1975. In that short time, the number of acres (or hectares) occupied by colonies of monarch has plummeted from a high of almost 22 acres in 1996 to 1.65 in 2013.

decline of the monarchs.

decline of the monarchs.

At first, habitat loss was to blame—all those Mexicans cutting down the trees for lumber, firewood, and to clear land for agriculture. So, the preserve was established in 1980 and declared a World Heritage site in 2008. Commercial logging is illegal, although trees may still be cut down by local people with mules and chainsaws.

But the monarchs continued to decline.

“I think the problem is in the north,” said Joel Moreno, whose grew up in Macheros, a village in the midst of the preserve. When he was a child, so many butterflies might roost in the branches of the oyamel trees that occasionally one would break from their weight and crash to the ground. His father was the area’s only park ranger for many years.

Lately, however, the finger points to farming practices in the US. The decline of the butterflies is inversely related to the increase in intense, GMO, Roundup-ready farming in the heartland of the US, through which the monarchs make their yearly migration.

Fields are cultivated without hedgerows that formerly grew native food plants, such as milkweed and goldenrod. Highway shoulders and medians are more rigorously mowed. Pesticide use has increased.

All these practices increase the hazards of the monarchs’ epic migration, making rest and food more difficult to find along their 3,000-mile journey.

Changing the practices of Big Ag is a long-term project—powerful companies aren’t likely to release their toxic golden geese anytime soon. Evironmental groups, including some organic farmers, are taking on Monsanto, the company with a chokehold on GMO, Roundup-ready seeds.

The steep and steady rise of herbicide-resistant crops (like Monsanto's RoundUp-ready) compared to the steady decline of migrating monarchs.

The steep and steady rise of herbicide-resistant crops (like Monsanto’s RoundUp-ready) compared to the steady decline of migrating monarchs.

But if that kind of activism isn’t in your blood, what can you do to tilt the scales just a little for the monarchs and other pollinators?

  • Plant. Even if you don’t live along the monarch flyway, get rid of your showy garden ornamentals for a more naturalized landscape of plants that attract birds, bees, and butterflies. What are the native food plants in your area? They grow like, um, weeds in many parts of the country. Plant them! My sister just put in an entire field of milkweed, which are the only plants on which monarchs lay their eggs.
  • Join. Check out for information on growing and releasing your own adult monarchs. Join the National Resources Defense Council, a large environmental group that takes on the big issues like protecting monarch flyways with a small army of lobbyists and lawyers dedicated to these causes.
  • Educate. Monarchwatch wants ambassadors in schools talking to kids about this amazing insect, how to grow them, and how to help insure their survival. In fact, the site has all kinds of fun projects for you. Other informative sites: are here and here.
  • Visit. Go to Mexico and see their overwintering sites. But be careful. You may become one of those frenzied activists that people edge away from at a party. Guaranteed, you won’t be the same afterward.

Monarchs are hardy creatures, but we are going to lose them if we don’t change our ways. Explain that to your grandchildren.

We can't lose this

We can’t lose this



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6 Responses to How you can save the monarch butterflies

  1. Ainlay Dixon 7 December, 2014 at 5:25 am #

    Such a great post and I will definitely follow though with those links. My neighbor is a leader in the anti GMO movement in PA so I already know about the danger of Monsanto but this is such a cruel loss. I felt the same way when we visited the Orangutans foundation in Borneo. It is purely our ignorance and self centerness that is wiping them out.

    • Kate Convissor 10 December, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

      I’m sure you’ve encountered tons of sad environmental fallout in your travels. Here, the fact that huge conglomerates can operate with impunity so long as profit increases for stakeholders, collateral damage notwithstanding. This is different in kind and quantity from the damage done by poor people trying to support their families.

      Yet, both cause damage. When the last white rhino dies, it won’t matter whether it was Monsanto or a poacher.

      I don’t know how to tease out the complexity. I also feel overwhelmed at the magnitude of the problem. It just makes me sad.

      Followed your trip to Japan. I hadn’t known your daughter was going to school there. As usual, you end up in the most interesting places with seeming ease and grace. This is so inspiring to me.

  2. Kerry McKee 6 December, 2014 at 10:35 pm #

    I live in Boron, California and started following your blog sporadically after you wrote of Boron. I am a simple aircraft mechanic who retired from the Air-Force and am now working at Edwards Air Force Base. I spent 15 years in other countries mostly in Europe and middle east. I always struck out on my own and looked and listened and always tried to learn about the country I was in. And because of the way you travel and learn is why I find your blogs so interesting. I am 61 years old now and will retire soon. I am not as energetic as I was just a few years ago, I am slowing down. I just wanted to let you know I appreciate your effort in learning. Not just in learning as in school rooms, but learning by experiencing things first hand. Keep it up, but please be careful. Thank-you again for expanding my knowledge of the world.

    • Kate Convissor 10 December, 2014 at 5:47 pm #

      Oh, Kerry. That’s the jazz, isn’t it? Absorbing the sounds and smells of a new place. Learning about the world we live in. For all the difficulties of solo, independent travel, I love it when I get to a magical place and think, “THIS is why I travel.” And there are plenty of moments like that.

      I’m 62, and didn’t have the chance to travel when i was younger. I don’t bounce back as easily as I used to, but I’m darned if I’ll miss the magic. I’ll just go slower!

      Thanks so much for following and sharing. Means a lot to me.

  3. Joe Todd 6 December, 2014 at 4:44 pm #

    Great post Kate. Are you still in Mexico or back to the cold/snow of Michigan?

    • Kate Convissor 9 December, 2014 at 5:47 pm #

      I’ve been back in Michigan for a while; I’ve just been slow about blogging. Gearing up for a trip to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru beginning in January.

      Do you have any trips planned?