Monarch butterfly populations are down.

When is the last time you saw a meadow?

Not a field, but a meadow with wildflowers, butterflies, meadowlarks and a wide variety of grasses? When is the last time you saw a Queen Anne’s lace and when is the last time you saw a milkweed plant growing wild? If you’re like me, you have seen more folks that looked like Elvis than even a single, pristine meadow in Central Virginia. That’s because a thick grass called fescue has taken over our fields. It’s worse than kudzu on our trees and it’s a primary cause of a dramatic decline in the monarch butterfly population. Meadows, you see, host a wide variety of plants, birds and animals. Fescue fields do not.

So far this summer, I have seen exactly one monarch butterfly in our yard. Many I speak with have seen none.

The king of the butterflies and the master of our meadows is struggling. It is estimated that there was a 90 percent loss in monarch butterfly populations in the past year. That is beyond significant.

From what the colorful insects have to go through, it’s a wonder we have any monarch butterflies at all. Butterflies that live in North America migrate each year, traveling as far as 2,500 miles to escape cold weather and to hibernate. Butterflies don’t exactly travel at the speed of sound, so a 2,500-mile journey is quite a trip. But they all don’t migrate, only the fourth generation. The first three generations die during the season, leaving the survival of the species up to the fourth group.

Monarchs have four generations each year. The initial three generations live for about six weeks each. The last generation, which should be hatching in our parts about now, must set out for places south — as far as Mexico — to spend the winter.

Female monarchs lay several hundred eggs in their short life span, but the larvae of the butterflies need milkweed in order to survive. Therein lies the problem.

Monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed and caterpillars only eat milkweed. But humans don’t seem to like milkweed very much and are cutting it down for various reasons. Sometimes we cut down milkweed in order to build houses, buildings and streets. Sometimes the milkweed is eliminated when trees are removed to harvest the wood. People don’t like milkweed in their yards because it doesn’t smell very good, or they think it is just a weed. So they cut it down.

As land development encroaches and with the spread of fescue, both of which snuff out meadow plants like milkweed, monarch butterfly populations tumble.

Backyard wildlife enthusiasts can help by planting milkweed and nectaring plants like butterfly bushes, which adult monarchs flock to. The plants are available at most nurseries and garden centers. Having them around will help attract butterflies of all descriptions to your yard.

Next time you see a milkweed plant, think about the plight of the butterflies. Don’t cut it down. Plant more. And next time you see a field of fescue, look for even a single wildflower and think about the plight of our butterflies.

Contact Jim Brewer at j44brewer@gmail.com

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