Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku.

Every monarch in the world is hatched on the leaf of a milkweed plant somewhere in the continental United States, and almost all of them spend winters on fir-covered mountains in central Mexico, in clumps so thick that tree branches can crash to the forest floor from their weight.

But this March, a storm brought such shattering winds and rain to their Mexican wintering grounds that millions of butterflies died before they could return to the US to breed. And the milkweed the survivors were looking for—once ubiquitous on American roadsides and in vacant lots and at the stubbled edges of farms—are mostly gone now, too, a casualty of the herbicides that go hand-in-glove with genetically modified crops.

Twenty years ago, there were at least a billion monarch butterflies in North America. Now there are only 35 million. Once upon a time, even a loss of that magnitude might have caused me only a flicker of concern, the kind of thing I trust scientists to straighten out. But I am old enough now to have buried many of my loved ones, and my children are growing up and going on, and loss is too often something I can do nothing about. So I lie awake in the dark and plot solutions to the problems of the pollinators—the widespread collapse of honeybee hives and the destruction of monarch habitats—in the age of Roundup.

When it was time to put my garden to bed last fall, I pulled out the okra and squash and tomatoes and planted a pollinator garden: coreopis and coneflower and sage and lavender and bee balm and a host of other wildflowers. Once spring came, I threw in a handful of zinnia seeds to fill in after the perennials were all bloomed out. The crowning glory of the garden was a dozen native milkweed plants, the only place on earth where a monarch butterfly will lay her eggs.

I know this scruffy half-acre lot in suburban Nashville is no match for what ails the pollinators, especially not in my part of town, where lawn services dispense poisons from tanks the size of pickup trucks. I am not a marcher or a protestor by nature—in large groups I feel vaguely doomed, expecting everyone around me to start throwing rocks—and so my usual approach to global issues is simply to do my own small part, hoping others will do the same and create a groundswell of goodness rippling across the land. But around here I think I might be the only one losing sleep over the bees and the butterflies.

Before her death last spring, our little terrier was always in fierce pursuit of moles. In a spray of dirt like something from a Roadrunner cartoon, she could dig up a mole run in a matter of minutes, leaving a system of open trenches crisscrossing the yard like the aftermath of some drunken wartime strategy. Once the mole was dead or had taken refuge in a tunnel under the roadbed, I would rake the mounds of dirt smooth again, cover the turned soil with white clover, and water it down.

“Rye?” a neighbor asked, watching me scatter seeds.

“Clover,” I said.

She looked at me. “You’re planting clover?”

“For the honeybees,” I said.

“Last summer there was a big ball of bees up in the crepe myrtle next to the garbage cans,” she told me. “It took a whole can of Raid to kill them.”

The bucket of clover seeds hung heavy in my hand.

Spring brought a nice crop of clover and the first blooms in the butterfly garden. The native bumblebees loved the new flowers, crawling into them with a full-body embrace that explains how they got all mixed up in a metaphor for sex in the first place. But I never saw more than one honeybee, and the monarchs apparently never noticed the milkweed with their rangy stalks full of vibrant orange flowers. Oh, there were other butterflies: cabbage whites and clouded sulfurs and gulf fritillaries with their deceptive orange wings. But the milkweed bloomed and faded without a single monarch arriving in the butterfly nursery I had built for them.

There will be another summer, I told myself.

So I am sowing clover seeds in the bare patches of my yard again. And this fall, with temperatures still unseasonably warm for Middle Tennessee, I water the butterfly garden through a profound regional drought that has lasted for more than two months. Only the zinnias are still blooming, and I debate with myself the right way to approach these weeks of unexpected flowers. Cut the spent blooms back and force the plants to keep making new flowers for any butterflies still on the wing? Or let the zinnias go to seed for goldfinches to harvest?

As with most of my quandaries, I’ve come to an inadvertent compromise: cutting the dead blooms when I think to, ignoring them when I don’t. So the goldfinches have had their zinnias, and the gulf fritillaries have had theirs, too.

And then, a miracle. Walking to the mailbox on a recent afternoon, I spied a flash of orange in the flower bed. I was a step or two on before I saw it: a monarch, riding a hot-pink zinnia nodding in the wind! I walked closer, and there on a yellow zinnia was another! And on the red one, too—and on the orange, the white, the peach ones. Monarch after monarch after monarch was gathering nectar from the fresh flowers. All that mild afternoon, my butterfly garden was a resting place for monarchs making a very late migration to Mexico.

Monarchs are the only butterflies that migrate as birds do, but it takes the monarch four generations to complete the cycle each year: no single butterfly lives to make the full round-trip from Mexico to its breeding grounds in the US and back. Entomologists don’t yet understand what makes successive generations follow the same route their ancestors took. I can only hope that the great-grandchildren of these monarchs will find respite in my garden, too. The milkweed will come back on its own, but I’ll be planting zinnias again next summer, just in case. For the butterflies.

Margaret Renkl

Margaret Renkl edits the Humanities Tennessee website Chapter 16 and writes at Nature Is What We See.

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3 Comments on “Late Migration

  1. I live in Iowa. I protect the milkweed that appears each spring but I have seen fewer if any monarchs in my garden. I am sadened. I remember them from my Minnesota childhood each summer and the milkweed along all of the country roads. My milkweed is not healthy because we live in a deciduous woodland but I keep hoping!

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