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Where have all the butterflies gone?

We’ve seen lots of stories in the news lately decrying the dwindling honeybee population.  Although this is an important topic, what’s less well known and discussed is that the once populous Monarch butterfly has also seen a drastic drop in their numbers.

During autumn, the brightly colored Monarch butterfly migrates from the cold northern regions of the US down through Florida providing an awesome view for those who track the progress.  During the spring, these same beautiful Monarchs migrate back up north laying eggs and mating along the way. Although the panhandle region of Florida sees much of the migration, many Floridians on the east coast with butterfly gardens and milkweed plants will entice these Monarchs to stop by and linger awhile.

Once thought to have a population of over 1 billion, the Monarchs are now thought to number around 35 million in total.  This is a more than a 90% drop in the population since a peak in the mid-1990’s.  Reasons for the decline include a dwindling natural habitat, mass deforestation, a reduction in milkweed plants and an increased use of commercial pesticides used by large farms and agri-businesses.

The Monarch is one of four primary types of the milkweed butterfly.  The other three are called the Queen, the Tropical and the Soldier.  All but the tropical can be found regularly in east-central Florida.  In fact, the tropical milkweed butterfly is usually found in South or Central America, but will sometimes venture as far north into south Texas.  These butterflies all have a very similar look, with the reddish-orange or yellow wings with black designs and white spots.

At this time, there is a movement to declare the Monarch butterfly an endangered species.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service are considering the recommendation and reviewing the data to determine whether a declaration of this type would be appropriate.  It may take up to a year before a final determination is made.

In the meantime, local environmental groups are giving away milkweed seeds, providing education and are encouraging those in the local area to grow plants that provide food and a place to lay eggs for these beautiful creatures.  The milkweed is a taller plant and grows beautiful red or yellow flowers.  Many varieties commonly found in Florida are considered non-native, but there are several native varieties including the butterfly milkweed and the swamp milkweed.

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