3. Avoid Rearing Monarchs

Raising butterflies is an enticing activity for families and educators, and I have done it most of my life but now I have learned the hard way that breeding monarchs in captivity is hurting the survival of the species. Captive-bred monarchs are less likely to survive, and scientists warn those that do survive long enough to mate will pass down their weaker traits to wild butterflies, hurting the chances of survival for the whole population. Instead of raising monarch caterpillars in your house or yard, you can watch wild monarch caterpillars grow from eggs to butterflies by monitoring the milkweed as I plan to do in the future – beginning now!

Remember that eradication of milkweed both in agricultural areas as well as in urban and suburban landscapes is one of the primary reasons that monarchs are in trouble today but not the only one. This is a complex issue. We need more than milkweed to save the monarchs and the rest of the insect population – we have to restore natural habitat – lots of it. We are a no-context culture so we have a tendency to choose a species and then try to save it (whales, butterflies, trout, birds – could go on and on here) without dealing with root causes, the context: logging machines, cattle run amok, general loss of habitat, drought, fires, climate change etc. I am assuming that most folks have developed some awareness around the crisis we are facing on a global level.

On the thorny subject of monarch tagging: I am a member of our local land trust (MLT) and am a volunteer for this organization. I personally am against monarch tagging and have expressed my views on this issue to those in power.

I believe that we tag butterflies primarily for people not for monarchs. Studies show that tagging creates stress for the insect, possibly lessening its ability to journey to its winter destination safely. More studies are being conducted as I write. As a lifetime naturalist/ethologist (Ph.D), it is still my common sense that tells me that creating stress for the butterfly may interfere with its survival for the short or long term. Of course, tagging helps humans monitor the monarch population so that the species has FINALLY become officially endangered. So, like everything else there are always two sides to the story. I leave the reader with a question each individual must answer for herself/himself. Do you think tagging monarchs helps the butterfly or not?

There’s new research that indicates that butterfly wing dust protects them from being eaten. The dust or powder on every butterfly wing is made up of tiny scales that may form patterns that help the butterflies blend into their background, and thus escape being eaten by birds or other animals.


While touching a butterfly’s wings may not kill it immediately, it could potentially speed up the fading of the colors on the butterfly’s wings, wiping out patterns that are used to protect the butterfly from predators.  Thus touching the butterfly’s wings could potentially result in a shorter life expectancy.

I think it may be prudent to let scientists do further studies before we champion tagging any further, but of course, this is simply my opinion.

I was fascinated to learn that the Desert Southwest harbors at least 41 of the 76 milkweed (Asclepias) species known to exist in the lower 48 states. The species richness of milkweeds in this region is influenced by the tremendous diversity and range of vegetation types, soils, topography, climate, and the exposure of unusual rock types that occur over more than a 9,000 foot elevation range. The nectar of milkweed flowers is attractive to dozens of insects including bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds. The bees that milkweed flowers attract to agricultural landscapes are important for pollinating a wide variety of vegetable forage and fruit crops.

Also of interest is that traditional ecological and utilitarian knowledge about milkweeds in the Desert Southwest has persisted due to the many living traditions among the region’s long-standing Native American cultures. Of the milkweed species found native, naturalized, or cultivated in the desert southwest region, there are recorded traditional uses of spider milkweed (Asclepias asperula); short-crown milkweed (A. brachystephana); tropic milkweed (A. curasaavica); Hall’s milkweed (A. halli); giant sand milkweed (A. erosa); mahogany milkweed (A. hypoleuca); swamp milkweed (A. incarnata); corn kernel milkweed (A. latifolia); Zizotes milkweed (A. oenotheroides); showy milkweed (A. speciosa); horsetail milkweed (A. subverticillata); butterfly weed (A. tuberosa); and whorled milkweed. Wow!

Many milkweed species in the Southwest borderlands were used medicinally—as an emetic, a treatment for warts, burns, and scalds, a respiratory aid (using powdered leaves and stems), a treatment for throat and nose congestion associated with colds and pleurisy, and when the entire plant was infused it was used to treat infants afflicted with diarrhea. In addition, an infusion or tea made from various milkweed species served as a gynecological aid for mothers after childbirth, a common practice for the Hopi and nearly all other tribes situated on the Colorado Plateau.

In the northern reaches of the Desert Southwest region, various bands of the Southern Paiute also used the root as an analgesic to wash heads to relieve headaches. The Hopi occasionally used the woody stems of milkweeds as a planting stick for dribbling seeds into their sand dune fields of native crops. The Diné and Zuni also used the floss or cottony fiber of barely-ripened seedpods to spin into string. The string was then used to fasten feathers to prayer sticks (pahos), or it was mixed with cotton to weave dance kilts or women’s belts. Rabbit and fish nets in the prehistoric Desert Southwest may have been comprised of both Asclepias and Apocynum species. Several milkweed species have also been used by Diné medicine men and Hispanic Curanderos to treat livestock ailments among cattle, goats, and sheep.


However, because of varying toxicity, please do not experiment with the use of Asclepias without foreknowledge!

In conclusion, as we can see from the above Indigenous practices milkweed is yet another plant with a multitude of uses aside from being the primary host for monarchs.

As our culture continues to be destroyed by western cultural practices that are not sustainable, perhaps we need to become ‘more Indigenous’, as well known author and scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests (Braiding Sweetgrass). If we were to take that route the monarchs might again find habitat, food, they need, and what’s left of land and trees might once again be valued as a complex interrelated Living Being, more than able to sustain us all. At the very least, it’s food for thought.



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