Tavia Cathcart Brown’s training is in native plants and one of the beautiful things about them, she says, is how they support pollinators. “Birds, bees, beetles and, of course, beautiful butterflies.”

As executive director of the Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve, she feels it’s her duty is to spread awareness and education about the plight of the monarch butterfly.

Each fall, millions of migratory monarchs leave summer breeding grounds in the northwestern part of the U.S. and Canada. They travel more than 3,000 miles to reach overwintering grounds in southwestern Mexico.

And due to being threatened by habitat destruction and climate change, Monarchs are now an endangered species.

“In 2016, I read how the numbers of Monarchs are dropping. The article actually said if you want to see in their wintering habitat, you should go soon …” So, Brown went to central Mexico.

She went to Michoacán and visited all four of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserves.

“One thing people should understand — the migration is endangered, not the butterflies themselves,” she said. On the western side of the county here, she said, we have Monarchs that migrate to certain coastal areas in California, and those numbers dropped by 98% about two years ago; they did increase last year.

“Weather affects them, too …” so all the California wildfires didn’t help, especially combined with drought.

Here, locally, we’re a part of the eastern migration, Brown said, but that there is a “slight blending” with the western groups.

“We have some rises and some falls …” in numbers, she said. “With a single major epic climactic event — if we drop down to 20 million, we can lose that in a single weather event, like we did in 2016.”

The Center for Biological Diversity said, in 2016, that the whopping 84% decline of the monarch population was driven by a loss of milkweed due to genetically engineered crops. Milkweed is the monarch caterpillar’s only food source. Studies from the U.S. Geological Survey say the decline is highly correlated with the increased use of herbicide-resistant, genetically engineered corn and soybeans, now making up more than 90% of all corn and soy grown in the country.

Brown said the monarchs overwinter at an elevation of about 10,000 in small section of the Sierra Madres Mountains, because they prefer a certain species of pine to roost in. She said in February and March, the angle of light tells them to leave Mexico, then they come into their sexual organs and go in search of milkweed, usually laying their eggs in Texas.

“Some will fan out into other states, but in general, they go there in search of milkweed,” Brown said.

The butterflies search for milkweed because it contains a poisonous sap that they’ve co-evolved with, she said. “When the caterpillars eat the sap and turn into butterflies, it makes them less tasty to birds and other species.”

This is why experts tell us to plant milkweed for monarch waystations — places that provide the resources necessary for them to produce successive generations and sustain their migration.

“It’s where they’ll lay their eggs, then the females and males die — they live about 4-6 weeks, then the babies come out and eat the eggshell, eat the milkweed, and go through about four to five different phases as caterpillars, then form the cocoon …”

Then anywhere from 10 days to two weeks later, a butterfly emerges, which only drinks nectar.

“When we see them in Kentucky, around the third week in September, depending on the weather, they’re already heading south,” Brown said, as they listen to their internal clock, based on the angle of the light.

“They fuel up with nectars from lots of plants, sipping their fuel then heading off to Mexico,” where they spend the longest portion of their life.

“One of the really neat things … when the angle of the light changes and they know it’s time to leave Mexico, some are so depleted with the nutrients that they’re surviving on, when the males mate with them, they will give them what they need to fly and find the milkweed. If they don’t find a flower to nectar on, they may die …”

After her visit to the Mexico reserves in 2016, Brown knew she needed to help them. “There was a series of ice storms there … caused a lot of suffering with five days of extreme cold, hail, snow and ice …” she said. One of her worst memories is reaching down into a foot-deep mound of dead butterflies that had fallen off branches.

“I knew I needed to add my voice, and that’s when I started giving presentations about monarchs,” she said. This was back when it was recommended that citizen scientist join the effort to raise and tag the monarchs, and Brown said they did hundreds of them. But that’s no longer recommended.

She says the best way to help monarchs is by planting milkweed.

Another stressor on the monarch is OE, a protozoan parasite that can infect monarchs when caterpillars eat its spores. Brown said we don’t know how OE was introduced.

“When they land on milkweed, they infect it, and any monarchs that come behind it are infected, will become deformed and result in its death,” Brown said.

Creasey Mahan also offers a Butterfly Ball, an event to raise awareness and funds for the plight of the monarch, each May. And there are two waystations at the preserve.

Brown said the best way to find out more about setting up a waystation is to visit monarchwatch.org, a nonprofit celebrating 30 years of operating this month. It also offers a “Milkweed Market” connecting people who want to help.

“They have a great website where people can get certified, what it takes to have a certified waystation. You have to plant some things based on your garden square footage, register it and you can put up a sign.”

Brown said Kentucky wants to get up to 2,000 certified waystations, and is now close to 1,200.

She also said several nearby locations offer pesticide-free milkweeds and native plants, including Dropseed Nursery, Ironweed Nursery and Idlewild Butterfly Farm.

Brown said anyone can help by limiting their own use of pesticides. “People don’t realize when they spray for mosquitoes, you’re killing everything … Everything is connected.”