Monarch Butterflies and the Butterfly Effect

monarch on zinnia

Monarch visiting a Zinnia flower

My friend Candace shared an article this weekend from the New York Times on the shocking decline of the Monarch Butterfly. I’ve been following their plight, and blogged about it earlier this year.

Here’s a bit of background:

Unlike most migrating species, monarch butterflies employ an improbable strategy that splits their round-trip migration between generations. Their life cycles must be intricately synchronized with those of the milkweed on which they lay their eggs.

Monarchs returning from Mexico reach the Southeast soon after native milkweeds appear in spring, producing the first of up to three generations that breed on new milkweed through summer. When the perennials start dying back in the fall, a final generation of butterflies typically emerges in a sexually immature state. Rather than reproduce when food is scarce and caterpillars might freeze, they fly to Mexico, to wait out the winter.

In the Midwest, which produces half of Mexico’s wintering monarchs, the scores of wild milkweed species among grasslands and farms are fast disappearing.

Nearly 60 percent of native Midwestern milkweeds vanished between 1999 and 2009, the biologists Karen Oberhauser and John Pleasants reported in 2012 in the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity. The loss coincided with increased applications of the weed killer Roundup on expanded plantings of corn and soybeans genetically altered to tolerate the herbicide. Meanwhile, monarch reproduction in the Midwest dropped more than 80 percent, as did populations in Mexico. Source: New York Times

Like many backyard gardeners, I wanted to do something to help, so I bought a packet of Milkweed seeds advertised as Butterfly Flowers. They are the genus Asclepias incarnata. What I didn’t know is that Swamp Milkweed continues to grow past the time the butterflies should be heading south.

butterfly collage july 2014

Monarch sipping nectar from Statice

According to the article, our good intentions could be backfiring.  Here’s an excerpt:

There’s this huge groundswell of people planting tropical milkweed, and we don’t know what it’s doing to the butterflies,” said Francis X. Villablanca, a biology professor at California Polytechnic University. “We’re all in a rush to figure it out.”

Dr. Altizer fears that when monarchs encounter lush foliage in the fall, they may become confused, start breeding and stop migrating.

“It’s sad, because people think planting milkweed will help,” she said. “But when milkweed is available during the winter, it changes the butterfly’s behavior.”

The times article linked to additional reading including ways to create habitat for Monarchs. I also learned at The Exerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation that its important to plant Milkweed native to our area. I found a site called Larner Seeds and ordered a species of Milkweed better suited to San Jose.

The Butterfly Effect

The butterfly effect is a scientific theory put forth by Edward Lorenz. It’s described this way:

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. The name of the effect, coined by Edward Lorenz, is derived from the metaphorical example of the details of a hurricane (exact time of formation, exact path taken) being influenced by minor perturbations such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier.

Ray Bradbury’s uses the butterfly effect in his chilling short story, A Sound of Thunder. Wealthy hunters pay a large sum of money to travel back in time to kill a dinosaur. They must stay on the approved path, and shoot the dinosaur, seconds before the animal dies from a falling tree. The hunter steps off the path and irrevocably alters time. When he returns to the present his reality is permanently altered. Devastated, he looks down at his boot and sees a crushed butterfly.

Could we be witnessing our own ‘butterfly effect’? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Additional Resources on the Monarch’s plight include:

Butterfly Chrysalis

Butterfly Chrysalis

Butterfly Habitiat

Butterfly habitat: My son raised and released five Monarchs several years ago

19 thoughts on “Monarch Butterflies and the Butterfly Effect

  1. Really interesting hon. It’s daunting to think of all the changes our human activities effect on a daily basis. Our footprints are deeper and larger than ever before. It’s no wonder the butterflies are struggling. I’ve been watching Jon Stewart’s take on the pipeline over the past couple of nights. It’s downright embarrassing that Alberta is exporting expropriation of land and destroying of so much natural habitat. I’m am a small fish in a big pond, swimming upstream in the most aggressive climate. The Monarchs are the tip of the melting icebergs. Everything and everyone is connected in some way. I think we’re past the point of no return as far as the health of the planet is concerned. I hate that I feel so grim on this matter. I always strive to live in good vibes of optimism, but I feel beaten in this regard.

    On a happier note, thank you for making a difference and planting for Monarchs passing through your neck of the woods. I always feel the moments a little magical when one floats by. xoxo

    Liked by 4 people

    • I understand your feelings entirely. I also know the challenges of living in a community when you don’t agree with the majority, especially when that majority seems hell bent on destroying something so precious. I’m behind on my Jon Stewart’s, but must catch up.

      I hope we’re not too late to reverse these trends, but like you, fear we’ve gone too far: deforestation, melting ice caps, pesticides, herbicides, big oil, big ag, big pharma. It’s overwhelming and sad.

      I love the idea of magic in those butterfly wings. They have much to teach us. The rest of the world needs to open their eyes. Thanks for sharing your perspectives.


  2. I hear so often of the disappearance of the monarch from North America and was heartened when I heard people were seeking out mikweed seedlings and planting them. I’m sorry to hear there was a glitch! Hopefully the plant and butterfly experts can get the word out via schools and websites etc and garden centres and the correct species will be planted in the correct areas. We only have the one cultivar here [an advantage of living on a small land mass] It is called ‘swan plant’ [we have had this conversation before haven’t we?] and I am pleased to report that I have never seen so many for sale in so many different garden shops as I have this spring. I know it is being taken very seriously here and our butterfly population conditions are in better shape. I also think as we lesson our reliance on chemical sprays our butterflies and beneficial garden insects will recover and thrive again .

    Liked by 3 people

    • Pauline, what you say makes so much sense. I plan to write to Botanical Interests, the site where I purchased my original seeds and ask if they can make their selections clearer. I think they’ll be open to that. I’m pleased to read that your community is so forward-thinking, offering swan plant at your local garden centers.

      I agree, too, that all these sprays and poisons must come to an end if we’ve any hope of recovering.

      How is your garden growing, by the way?


      • My garden is growing quite well considering the awful weather we have had this month. Thank you for asking, it reminds me I must make a post 🙂 Just as soon as we finish this latest push to make my space work…… and get D packed up and ready for her move …… There is not enough hours in the day at the moment! xoxo


  3. Obviously we don’t have monarchs here, but I have heard about the problem of later flowering milkweeds. A different but maybe similar (!) problem here is birdfeed… everyone is told to feed the birds in winter, but some imported birdseed contains seeds which if they germinate can become invasive, thus disturbing the natural balance and habitats of our birds and wildlife. I have often thought of how one different choice or decision could have a wider effect unknown to us all… I think we really can all make an important contribution to saving our wildlife, but we need objective and comprehensive information to help us make the right decisions and I find that very hard to obtain! Thanks for making me think about this again Alys!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Cathy, that’s another good example of trying to do right by nature, but potentially causing further damage, even with good intentions. I think countries should be far more strict when importing any kind of seed for this very reason. The damage can be extraordinary and possible irreversible.

      I agree, too, that even when you think of yourself as educated and well read, it’s easy to make small slip ups (like my originally seed purchase). Your comment, and the others on this post have also given me more to think about.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It is great that so many bloggers are reporting on the NYT article but rather than blaming gardeners as I understand the article did, more emphasis is needed to stop companies like Monsanto who seem to have the right in the States at least to do whatever they like to the environment to make money. Genetic engineering was ‘sold’ to us as a means of producing more crops but as the method as been hijacked by companies intent on selling more and more herbicide, insecticide and pesticides we are reaping the ‘benefit’. What do the big chemical companies care about Monachs? Nothing – they care the same about our health. We, as consumers, can make a difference. Don’t buy GM products, demand that your government make labelling of such products compulsory (it is in Europe). Buy organically produced foods whenever you are able. Talk to friends, colleagues and your children. We could change things but we need to understand the powerful lobby forces against us. I don’t think a few gardeners planting the right or wrong milkweed is going to make any difference whatsoever. Use the one power you have, vote with your wallet (pocket book, I think you say.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Christina,

      I don’t think the intent was to expressly blame gardeners (we’re the ones trying to counteract the Monsanto lead damage) but to point out the delicate balance and the cause and effect, even under positive conditions.

      California put forth legislation last year trying to require labeling of all GM products. As you can guess, big ag fought it tooth and nail, throwing tons of money toward its defeat. The legislation failed to pass. I vote in every election, but sadly, often feel I’m swimming upstream. I’ll continue to vote my conscience, but will also try to make small changes in my own way, like planting the right milkweed along with other beneficial plants, while continuing to garden organically.

      I agree with all you’ve said about GM products. I listen to and read anything and everything I can on the subject. I also vote with my pocket book/wallet.

      Thank you for contributing to the conversation. It’s an important one.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Alys, are those your Monarch photos? Beautiful!
    A few of my friends are biologists (I live in a small university town) and lament this story. Humans have had such a harmful effect on so many things.
    Thank you for revisiting and expanding on this story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Laurie,

      Yes, these are my photos. The Monarch on the pink Zinnia is from a year ago, the Monarch on the purple and white Statice is from this past summer. Seeing it in my garden this summer got me researching more and more.

      It must be interesting living in a community with biologists and other educators. I would love that.

      Thanks for joining the conversation.


  6. There seems no end to the conundrum of what to do to undo the damage we have done. I’m glad to know about the differences in Milkweed before I go to the nursery next spring. I’ll pay close attention. I’m hoping Mother Nature knows how to get herself righted after what we have done. Thanks so much for the update.

    Liked by 1 person

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