Newsroom Midwest Region

Why we need a pollinator ambassador

November 15, 2016

The monarch butterfly is an ambassador to broaden our support conservation actions across North America. Photo courtesy of Jane Abel/Creative Commons.
The monarch butterfly is an ambassador to broaden our support conservation actions across North America. Photo courtesy of Jane Abel/Creative Commons.

It’s the end of the migration season for monarch butterflies, and the Midwest has been keen to aid them on their journey.

The annual monarch migration is becoming a community event. In Minneapolis, conservationists organized educational – but festive – butterfly send-offs. And from Michigan to Missouri, residents are collecting and planting milkweed and other native nectar plants so winged travelers can survive their journey.

Not every pollinator is so fortunate. Many lack the cultural charisma which has made the monarch so popular with humans– you’re unlikely to find any pollen wasp festivals. This is why we are using the butterfly’s star-power to help those criticized insects, even if it draws attention away from them.

Humans have related to monarchs for centuries. Many Latinos believe the monarchs are the returning spirits of their deceased relatives, mysteriously arriving in Mexico at the same time each year, coinciding with the Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead.

In Japan, butterflies represent young women who find marital bliss. This is why many family crests have a butterfly in its design. Several Native American tribes believe that if you have a secret wish you must capture a butterfly, whisper your desire into its antenna and release, allowing the butterfly to find the great spirit to grant your wish.

Our next generation is required to learn about the evolution in living systems. Educators rely on readily accessible, practical science to instruct their students. Here lies the monarch butterfly - historical abundance across the entire country, simplicity of collecting and rearing, swift life cycle and the capability to return them to the wild.

People constantly look for connections - patterns on a butterfly wing, metamorphosis as a symbol of rebirth. We when find them, a bond tends to form. Monarch’s characteristics make them captivating. They flutter instead of buzz, they are a non-stinging insect and they parade in vibrant colors. Their charisma is able to inspire universal support, making the monarch butterfly an undeniable ambassador for all pollinators.

“This is a great opportunity to engage people around a charismatic animal. Helping the monarch butterfly plays an important role in protecting other pollinators and broadens our reach to support conservation actions across North America,” said Tom Melius, Midwest Regional Director.

Furthermore, other pollinators face similar environmental challenges. Urban sprawl has significantly decreased habitat with homeowners using herbicides, reducing native nectar-producing plants. Agricultural land has degraded habitat by using neonicotinoid pesticides, along with transportation sectors mowing during the milkweed growing season. Climate change has also been linked to shrinking the geographic range for many pollinator species.

By protecting one ambassador or surrogate species using a landscape conservation approach, the benefits can trickle down to others. For example, the rusty patched bumble bee, is our nation’s first potential endangered bee in the lower 48 states. This bumble bee, once widespread, is now found in scattered, small populations in 12 states and one Canadian province. Supporting monarchs alongside the rusty patched can provide the needed resources for recovery. Our campaign to plant native flowers that bloom throughout the growing season is key. And if people leave flowers on the stem as long as possible, especially in fall, this makes it possible for the bees to survive the winter and to produce new colonies in the spring.

Or perhaps look at a non-pollinator species - the federally threatened eastern massasauga rattlesnake. Habitat loss is the primary threat driving declines of eastern massasaugas. Snakes may be killed while crossing roads as they travel between wetlands or by prescribed fires and mowing when those activities are conducted after snakes have emerged from hibernation. Massasaugas live in wet prairies, marshes and low-lying areas along rivers and lakes. They also use adjacent uplands during part of the year. Using a mix of wetland and upland habitat, supporting habitat for monarchs can offer this rattlesnake increased habitat in both locations as well. Milkweed and native nectar plants grow in almost every soil type and terrain.

Monarchs can provide potential solutions for the recovery of species. Monarchs can elevate these conservation dilemmas and protect many more animals. So, embrace our orange-black and white winged ambassador; connect it to your conservation actions; and share timely activities that people can contribute towards our conservation efforts.