The population is also tracked via the Monarch Watch Tagging Program which began in 1992. Volunteers tag butterflies with a small sticker on the underside of their wing. Each sticker has a unique three-letter, three-number code referring to the location at which it was tagged. According to their website, Monarch Watch distributes tags to thousands of volunteers each fall who “capture monarchs throughout the migration season, record the tag code, tag date, gender of the butterfly, and geographic location, then tag and release them.” People who recover the monarch can submit the data by calling the number or sending an email to the address listed on the tag. Tagging kits, for those interested in volunteering, are available at monarchwatch.org.
The number of monarchs counted while overwintering in Mexico increased 144 percent last year, which made it the highest count since 2006. While this is impressive, the monarch population is not even half of what it was in 1996. The increase in the Mexican population this past year is most likely attributable to favorable weather in the spring and summer mating seasons. The California population has continued falling in recent years, and the decrease is most likely due to habitat loss and the presence of pesticides. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was petitioned to designate monarchs an endangered species in 2014, but they are still assessing whether they should actually be classified under the Endangered Species Act.
Because of their short lifespan and the large distance they travel, it takes four generations of monarchs to travel from Mexico north to Canada. The lifespan for most monarchs is six to eight weeks. As they travel northward, they mate and lay eggs that eventually become the butterflies that continue the journey north, until they reach their destination in southern Canada, where the fifth and final generation in the migration cycle is born in September and October. These monarchs live much longer —four to five months— and make the entire journey down from Canada to Mexico. They reach their roosts in November and overwinter huddled on Oyamel firs in the mountaintops of central Mexico and then become active and begin mating in March and April, which starts the migration cycle over again. Nearly 99 percent of the monarch populations migrate to Mexico, but the rest of the monarchs, west of the Rocky Mountains, migrate to southern California.
Here is an easy way to help monarchs along on their journey: plant milkweed. Milkweed serve as monarchs’ only host plants, which means that is the only plant they will lay their eggs on, and the only plant on which their larvae will feed. “It’s important to get native milkweed,” says Carillo, because it is what will grow most successfully in the environment and will also be a beneficial food source for other native pollinators, that have co-evolved with native plants. Monarchs have lost nearly 165 million acres of milkweed in the United States since the mid-1990s.
Milkweed is toxic to monarchs’ predators, and when the monarchs eat milkweed, they absorb that toxicity, which keeps their predators away. Viceroy butterflies are a mimic of monarchs, meaning they look very similar —the only way to tell them apart is by the horizontal line across their bottom wings, that monarchs do not have. So even though viceroy do not eat any toxic plants, predators will stay away from viceroy because they look like monarchs.
Milkweed is the most beneficial plant for monarchs, but there are other ways to help them and other pollinators like other species of butterflies, bees, hawk moths, hummingbirds and wasps, who all feed on nectar plants. Native perennial flowers like bee balm, western yarrow, butterfly weed, chocolate flower, and various species of penstemon and sage, will attract butterflies and other pollinators and serve as a food source. Various species of both annual and perennial verbenas and lantanas also attract butterflies. Blue grama grass is also helpful, because it provides food for caterpillars.
Some common butterfly species in New Mexico that might visit a butterfly-friendly garden include viceroy, western tiger and giant swallowtails, clouded and cloudless sulfur, cabbage white, painted ladies, common buckeyes and mourning cloaks. Mourning cloaks are generally the first to make an appearance in late winter or early spring. Monarchs are most commonly seen in New Mexico during the fall on their migration south.
Another way to make your garden beneficial to butterflies is to avoid using pesticides, especially on plants that monarchs and other pollinators use as a food source, because it will kill the pollinators you are trying to encourage. You can create a water source for butterflies by filling a shallow dish with water and some rocks, which give the butterflies something to land on while they drink.
“The great thing about helping monarchs is that you’re helping other pollinators, too,” says Carillo. “People might not care about helping a little bee who is only specific to one part of New Mexico, but a lot of people do care about monarchs. Anything you do to help monarchs will also help that little bee, which sustains a certain plant that feeds bigger animals, and so on, throughout the hierarchy of the ecosystem.”

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