Common Mistakes to Avoid While Saving the Monarch Butterfly
Updated: Sep 5, 2022
How a grounded EarthCare practice gives us room to breathe, observe + interact, and support monarchs (and all beneficial insects!) with a holistic approach to habitat stewardship.
Like many of us who are paying attention to news and memes in environmental circles on social media, the LadyBugs have been hearing lots of buzz about monarch butterflies being declared “endangered” by the IUCN, entering its Red List of Threatened and Endangered Species. It’s a troubling development that has been splashing across our news feeds and raising alarms, understandably so.
Alarm, concern and even panic are completely understandable emotional responses to ecological problems, which can complicate the way we react. In worst case scenarios, this can lead to either end of a spectrum of dangers: aggressive action with harmful side effects or depressive inaction because it feels like all is lost.
We’ve learned that approaching EarthCare from an emotionally heightened place can be counterproductive, and we believe we’re seeing and feeling this happen with the monarchs.
Here are the most common mistakes we see happening in the attempt to save the monarchs, or any other declining species, and what we can do instead to make a meaningful impact for these beneficial insects, with an EarthCare perspective.
Mistake #1: Getting caught up in the hype
Based on a few articles that were being re-posted, and the conversations happening in comments, we admit that we too got caught up in the hype and began talking about the increasing threat against monarchs in our newsletter, without a deeper dive into the facts first.
Monarchs are probably the most recognizable and beloved species of butterfly, which further contributes to the level of concern. It’s easy for anyone to relate to the monarch and feel upset at the thought of their extinction. Threats against well-known, beloved species (known as flagship species to ecologists) can raise awareness, and that’s not a bad thing. However, “famous” species like these can also create a trap - internalizing the very surface level hype of the deeper, complex issue, and then becoming part of the noise. We’ve seen this with the spotted lanternfly, which is excessively hated, and we are watching how misunderstandings and misrepresentations have caused an all-out war with devastating consequences.
→ Read more about the Spotted Lanternfly challenge from an EarthCare perspective in this blog post.
Understanding the Monarch Butterfly’s Status
We are very aware that monarchs, along with many countless other insect species, are facing extreme habitat loss, suffering from toxic chemicals, and struggling to survive as the human species continues to expand, extract and harm the environment.
That being said, we still think it’s worth noting that the IUCN’s “endangered” classification applies to the migratory subspecies of monarchs. It’s not the same as saying that all monarchs everywhere are now considered endangered. Here’s a post by Monarch Watch that further explains the status of monarchs in the U.S., and why they agree with the current classification.
Why is this an important distinction? It’s not to disregard the seriousness of the threat.
Rather, it’s a fact that may help to relieve some of the emotional overwhelm that happens naturally as a response to mass hysteria. When people get upset about a serious problem, there’s a tendency to reach wildly for solutions and implement them without much thought, awareness or observation. And that’s not the best way to approach solutions.
Our EarthCare practice teaches us to FIRST observe, THEN interact. Ethical Interaction is respectful and relational. It is the practice of observing through involvement, getting to know the land and what it needs, before making big changes.
As we’ve seen with the chemical warfare response to the spotted lanternfly, acting from a place of overwhelm and fear usually leads to solutions that cause more damage than the problem they were prescribed to fix.
What can we do instead? The first step is to take a deep breath. Regulate your nervous system. Orient yourself in the present moment. Then read on for more tips and suggestions for how to use your EarthCare practice to support beneficial insects like the monarchs.
Mistake #2: “Just plant milkweed!”
The most common solution being offered is to plant more milkweed. Simple, right? Just go to the plant store, buy some milkweed, get it in the ground, and voilà. Crisis averted! Monarchs saved!
Obviously, we all know it’s not that simple. But the bigger conversation about building, conserving and protecting habitat for monarchs is largely missing. When our anxiety and fear responses get triggered by headlines, we reach for solutions that make us feel like we can regain control. When surface level “solutions” are provided without any of the context needed to make a meaningful change, folks who really care about protecting beneficial insects like the monarchs may not be getting the message.
It’s true that native milkweed species are absolutely essential to the monarch population. Milkweeds are the only host plant for monarch larvae. After mating, female monarchs will search for a milkweed plant and lay eggs on the underside of its leaves. With the increase in human population and development, milkweed has become scarce, which is detrimental to the monarch population who depends on it to survive.
So, YES, we do need more milkweed! But the type of milkweed matters, and so does the surrounding habitat.
As Benjamin Vogt says in this excellent piece about monarchs on The Deep Middle, “Monarchs need an entire native plant community -- host plants AND nectar plants. And they need other interactions that occur in a dense, layered native plant community; interactions involving other species, interactions in the soil, interactions among the plants.”
We can’t just plant more milkweed and expect to save the monarchs. We need to build habitat with native plants, support beneficial insects with a holistic approach, and stop doing things to Earth that damage, hurt and kill them.
A grounded EarthCare practice will guide you in taking meaningful action to support beneficial insects and pollinators, right where you are. Monarchs are just one of many insect species that will benefit from our practice of mindful EarthCare. As stewards, we believe in the value (and responsibility) of protecting all of the beings with whom we share home.
→ Want to learn more about EarthCare, and what an EarthCare practice looks like? Take our EarthCare 101 mini class!
Mistake #3: Planting Tropical Milkweed + Milkweeds With Pesticides
We’ll admit - we were tricked by tropical milkweed once! This genus of milkweed (Ascelpias curassavica) is not native to North America, although it has been widely propagated, since planting milkweed to save monarchs has exploded in popularity.
According to Xerces society, tropical milkweed causes multiple serious problems for monarchs in North America, mainly because it blooms late and doesn’t die back in winter. The late blooms can confuse monarchs into breeding when they need to migrate, or when they should be overwintering (especially in California).
Another problem is with a parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE). This parasite travels with monarchs and is commonly found on milkweeds. As explained in this Xerces Society article about tropical milkweed, “High OE levels in adult monarchs have been linked to lower migration success in the eastern monarch population, as well as reductions in body mass, lifespan, mating success, and flight ability.”
When native milkweeds die back in winter, the parasite dies too. Tropical milkweed plants that don’t die back allow a greater proliferation of OE, and further harm monarch populations.
In another alarming report from Xerces Society, harmful pesticide residue was found on ALL milkweed plants they tested from retail nurseries. Even plants that were labeled "pollinator friendly" were found to contain chemicals, and sometimes even more of them. These toxins are known to harm monarchs, further threatening the endangered population.
So, before you buy and plant milkweed, make sure you have a genus that is native to your bioregion. For us in the Mid-Atlantic, the most highly recommended are common milkweed (A. syriaca), swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) and butterflyweed (A. tuberosa). Talk to your grower and verify that no pesticides or neonicotinoids were used on the plants.
→ Milkweed Identification Guide: Project Monarch Health
Left: Tropical Milkweed (Ascelpias curassavica). Center: Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Right: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).
Our most important PSA: Don’t don’t give into overwhelm and despair.
We understand how overwhelming and devastating it is to consider the weight of the issues facing Earth. We feel it too, and we’re right here with you.
But we also know that we can’t let it pull us into despair, making us feel powerless, helpless and incapacitated. We believe that humans need to take responsibility as stewards and care for the land, in the only place where we can actually make a difference - right where we are.
For us personally, we’ve found that the only way to do this effectively is through our practice of EarthCare. Our mission is to use the tools, insights and gifts of a grounded EarthCare practice to heal ourselves, heal the Earth in the places we call home, and empower our community to do the same. That’s how we make an impact - together, one small patch of Earth at a time.
How can you practice EarthCare and make a meaningful difference for pollinators and beneficial, beloved insects like the monarch? We’ve created resources to support you.
Download our free guide: EarthCare for Monarchs + Beneficial Insects. These simple tips will help you focus on building habitat for monarchs and insects from a holistic EarthCare perspective.
Start by Observing and Interacting. Spend a little bit of time with the land every day. Jumpstart your practice with our 3 Day Sit Spot Challenge.
Learn what we mean when we talk about EarthCare, what a grounded EarthCare practice looks like, and how it benefits Earth and humans alike. Join us for our virtual one-hour mini class: EarthCare 101 - What is it, why does it matter, and what’s in it for you?