Covering Kentucky

Sep 15, 2012 3:18 PM

Drought Affecting Butterfly Population In W. Ky

HENDERSON, Ky. (AP) - A naturalist at Audubon State Park in western Kentucky is noticing another effect of the high heat and drought that has plagued the region - a dearth of monarch butterflies.

Julie McDonald told The Gleaner that the butterflies are usually migrating through the area to Mexico by now.

"Normally by now I would have been seeing monarch butterflies," she said. "But I haven't seen any yet, unfortunately. The heat has hit anything that feeds on nectar."

She says the scarcity of monarch butterflies makes it more important for volunteers to participate in a program later this month to catch and tag the insects so that researchers can find out more about them.

"Every butterfly counts," she said.

Monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on plants in the milkweed family. If it isn't available, such as in times of drought, the butterfly will move on. Monarchs feed on nectar, which can be in short supply during a drought.

Chip Taylor, who is director of the conservation group Monarch Watch, says the number of monarch butterflies was in decline even before the drought.

"The population is probably only 50 percent of the long-term average," the conservationist said. "There's no question that the monarch population is going down. It's the same old story we hear over and over 'loss of habitat.'"

Taylor said a domino-effect is possible.

"When we lose monarch habitat, we're losing the habitat of a lot of our pollinator species, and we're losing them at alarming rates," he explained. "They distribute pollen for about 70 percent of our vegetation out there, and that's where we get our fruit, nuts, berries, seeds and leaves. You pull (pollinators) out of the system and the system collapses. It's becoming a complicated world out there."

McDonald said she is hopeful recent rains will help and that the Monarch's migration will just peak later in the season.

"But if the butterflies run across areas in their migration where the heat and drought continued and plants weren't able to bounce back, it could be tough for them," McDonald said.

She said she is encouraging landowners to plant native butterfly-friendly plants.

"If we let allow wild plants take hold, it gives migrating birds and butterflies someplace to eat, hide and stop over until they can back into the air and continue on their journey," she said.

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