One of the most endearing stories in nature is the migration of the Monarch butterfly, told beautifully in Illustra Media’s newest documentary, Metamorphosis. Unfortunately, these delicate marathoners stand in jeopardy as their habitat shrinks because of human pressure.
The Monarch butterfly relies for its life cycle on the milkweed, the host plant for its eggs and caterpillars, and on the oyamel fir trees in the Trans-Volcanic Mountains of Mexico where it spends the winter. In a real sense, Monarchs follow the milkweed north from spring in Texas till autumn in the Great Lakes region and Canada, when a “Methuselah generation” heads south for thousands of miles to hibernate, waiting for a new crop of milkweed the following spring. Milkweed used to be abundant in the eastern United States, growing alongside roads and within fields of corn.
In the Q&A bonus feature on the Metamorphosis DVD, entomologist Dr. Thomas Emmel of the University of Florida warned that Monarch butterflies are being threatened by new farm practices in the prairie states. In question #15, he said that about ten years ago, new herbicide-resistant strains of corn and soybeans were made via genetic engineering. This encouraged managers of vast tracts of farmland to spray their entire fields, killing the milkweed along with other native herbaceous plants.
As a result, Monarch populations have declined precipitously. According to Kathleen Pointer, writing for the Kansas City Star, their numbers have been cut in half. The butterflies are getting hit from both ends — from loss of milkweed in American farmlands, and from loss of winter habitat in Mexico, where deforestation is encroaching on their isolated mountain colonies.
Fortunately, Pointer wrote, Monarchs have an ally. An organization called Monarch Watch has begun a campaign called Bring Back the Monarchs, raising awareness of the insects’ plight, and encouraging people to plant milkweed and raise Monarch butterflies in their yards. While the outpouring of public support has been encouraging, there are serious concerns that it will be too little too late. Emmel said that between 95 and 100 percent of corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are now the herbicide-resistant strains. And unless Mexico protects the butterflies’ mountain colonies from uncontrolled deforestation, their numbers may continue to decline.
No matter what measures are taken to protect the Monarchs, it is doubtful their numbers will ever return to earlier levels, when swarms of these delicate flying machines, their orange and black wings flashing in the sunshine, delighted adults and children alike as symbols of spring and resurrection. Emmel commented in question #16,
Why save the Mona Lisa? Why save other great works of art? Here is a butterfly that does something truly spectacular… something the U.S. Navy cannot do… to navigate by the sun to such an incredibly precise location, and then come back again and do the whole thing over again the next year… We are only beginning to understand how miraculous this is.
Monarchs can be found in every state of the U.S. Consider growing some milkweed in your garden to help these travelers in their epic journeys, and support conservation efforts to protect their habitat. As Pointer wrote, “If you see a monarch butterfly lighting in your backyard this year, take an extra moment to enjoy it” — while you still can.
To learn more about butterflies and the evidence they reveal for intelligent design, visit Metamorphosisthefilm.com, where you can order this outstanding film, now available in Blu-Ray.