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Researchers track Monarch butterfly's decline; here's how you can help

A population bounce-back starts with planting weeds
Posted at 10:05 AM, Apr 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-25 11:05:07-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — One of our country’s most popular insects is in trouble -– the Monarch butterfly.

As caterpillars, Monarchs have just one food source -– milkweed — and this plant is not taking up as much space as it used to.

“Unfortunately, milkweed is getting in shorter and shorter supply,” said Michael Lewis, a clean air and water advocate for the Environment Texas organization.

Milkweeds are being weeded out for multiple reasons: one is the increased use of pesticides

“I think, just not as many people are planting it,” said self-described big nerd Rebecca Zerlin.

Her more formal title is graduate research assistant at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. Zerlin and other researchers around the world are watching a pattern that shows a decline of insect populations because of climate change and pesticides.

“I’m looking at how prescribed burning affects butterflies in South Texas,” Zerlin said. “Burning is such a useful tool. It can help remove old vegetation that’s dead and clear the way for new vegetation to grow.”

Growth is also happening in downtown Kingsville, in the xeriscape garden at 206 E. Yoakum Ave. Kingsville is a Monarch city.

“The city just got certified, I want to say, within the last couple of years," Zerlin said. "We have quite a few butterfly gardens all around town.”

A must-have for a DIY butterfly garden is milkweed.

“Every year about this time we get a lot of calls for milkweed," said Bay Area Landscape Nursery's Trent Hoffman, as he stood in front of his butterfly weed display. "We sell a lot of it because people do like the butterflies.”

The plants were shipped in from just south of Dallas to Corpus Christi. They are one of the only weeds to be hot sellers. Hoffman tries to keep them stocked throughout the season.

“You usually don’t want things to eat your plants, but in this case, it’s a good thing,” he said.

Customers just need a $10 bill to save an elegant creature on the brink of crumbling.

“I look at it as a plant that’s actually useful and it actually helps the environment," he said. "You know, just kind of keeps the life cycle going."

According to monarchwatch.org, there are 73 species of native milkweeds in the US; many are rare, threatened, and endangered. And now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is pushing for one species belonging to Texas – called prostrate milkweed – to be added to the endangered species list.

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