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Happy environmental news

Posted 11/18/2015

Monarch Butterfly in Outdoor Education Center

Monarch Butterfly in Outdoor Education Center

So often, news about the environment has been sad, apparently hopeless. Global climate change, resulting in the loss of huge areas of arctic habitat, is one problem that seems too big for us mere mortals to solve. Projections for the state of Florida over the next few decades are astonishing; a significant amount of its real estate will be under water if the predictions hold true.

The oceans are probably not going to rise so much that those of us in southern Nevada will own beachfront property. More problems, like the demise of honeybees and other pollinators, are equally depressing. This is due in large part to human activities. Our actions, such as urban sprawl and the careless and excessive use of insecticides, have led to the loss of essential environments for these critical insects.

With so much bad news, it is good to hear that humans are apparently doing something right, and that we are contributing to saving a population.

Just a few years ago, monarch butterflies looked as if they were slowly dying out. East of the Rockies, monarchs migrate from the Northeast down to Mexico. The numbers reaching that location, which is a relatively small area, and returning to the north was decreasing dramatically.

Here in the western United States, we have another population of monarchs. These do not migrate south, but instead travel to the California coast, where winter temperatures are more welcoming. Imagine how amazing it must be to see hundreds of thousands of gorgeous butterflies near the ocean! The news from those overwintering areas is concerning. In some sites, the numbers have diminished by roughly one half.

That does not appear to be the case for the eastern population, where more people have been involved in conservation efforts for several years. In this part of the country, those efforts only really started in earnest a few years ago.

The eastern butterflies are starting to make what appears to be a comeback. They certainly have not even begun to approach their previous numbers, which were once in the millions. Even so, when there are more reaching Mexico than a few years ago, and this is probably due to the attention of thousands of people. They are using fewer insecticides, and those they use are less persistent in the environment. They are also planting milkweed.

Monarch caterpillars have coloration similar to their parents. Do not confuse them with grape leaf skeletonizers, whose colors are somewhat like those of the monarchs. Skeletonizers appear on grape leaves. Milkweed, not grape leaves, is the food of choice for monarch larvae. They mainly eat the leaves of these plants, but I have a picture of one that is devouring a milkweed seedpod. This is not alarming; the plants produce enough seedpods and seeds to feed a few stray caterpillars.

If a person wants to try growing their own milkweed to encourage these beautiful insects, seed is available from a number of online sources. Using fewer pesticides will also help them survive when they arrive in our welcoming gardens.

Email or call Angela O’Callaghan, Social Horticulture Specialist, at 702-257-5581.

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