The Monarch of Monarchs
Orley Taylor has dedicated his life to rebuilding monarch butterfly populations.
The headlines this winter offered tantalizing hope for monarch butterflies. Cooler temperatures in Texas breeding grounds encouraged the embattled butterfly population to surge by 144 percent. But climate change and projections for warmer weather in the future mean the boom could be a one-year fluke. The butterfly faces another formidable foe, after all: Acres of milkweed, which monarch larvae feed on exclusively, have been dramatically reduced in the U.S. due to development and the use of weed killer.
“Monarchs are telling us that we are not doing a very good job of maintaining the biodiversity out there,” says Orley “Chip” Taylor (B.A. ’59), a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas. Taylor founded Monarch Watch in 1992, an organization with the mission of researching and bolstering monarch populations.
The black, orange, and white Danaus plexippus is a bug under siege, says Taylor, who, perhaps more than anyone in the country, has devoted his life to saving the butterfly. As pollinators, monarchs play an important role in helping plants reproduce and ensuring bountiful harvests. “Biodiversity supports the system that supports us all,” says Taylor, who speaks in measured cadences despite the challenges at hand.
Soon after its founding, University of Kansas-based Monarch Watch launched a tagging program, designed to increase understanding of the monarchs’ monumental fall migration from North America to Mexico. The organization has also encouraged the planting of milkweed “way stations” around the country.
To date, there are more than 22,000 way stations—some as small as 100 square feet—at schools, in home gardens, and in commercial landscaping. Taylor successfully encouraged the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council to distribute free milkweed plants to schools. And in 2010, he launched the Bring Back the Monarchs program, a large-scale habitat restoration effort that calls for a “new conservation ethic.”
“We need a comprehensive plan to manage the fragmented edges and marginal areas created by development and agriculture, since it is these edges that support monarchs,” Taylor says.
Taylor was raised mostly in St. Paul. The son of an accountant father, he had no aptitude for numbers, so instead focused on the natural world. He honed his love for nature and bugs as a kid spending summers in Crivitz, Wisconsin, north of Green Bay, near the Peshtigo River. There, his grandmother owned an 80-acre spread that tantalized Taylor with its sights and sounds.
“It was a biological playground for a curious young kid,” he says. “The river was just full of life, and I had the run of the place. I was turning over rocks in the river and finding all sorts of stuff that was exciting. There was a mystery to the landscape, and it was a fantasyland for a kid.”
Attending the University of Minnesota was a logical choice. “I had no desire to go anywhere else at the time,” Taylor says. He studied zoology and went on to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Connecticut.
Because he initially was allergic to butterflies, possibly due to pigment in the bugs’ scales, Taylor started out working with Africanized honeybees—so-called killer bees. When that work ended in the early 1990s, he decided to give butterflies another chance. At the time, he was teaching an experimental field ecology class at Kansas and the monarch “turned out to be a very good subject for part of the course each year.”
Since then, he’s become an extremely effective advocate and evangelist. “I have witnessed Chip turn hostile community groups into conservation champions through his patient and prudent approach,” says Laurie Adams, executive director emeritus of the San Francisco-based Pollinator Partnership. “No one on the planet is more committed to the welfare of the monarch butterfly than Chip Taylor.”
Monarchs are dynamos of the bug world: From Canada each year, they travel nonstop 3,400 miles—at the rate of 50 to 100 miles per day—to their Cerro Pelon, Mexico, wintering ground, an oasis of Oyamel firs 10,000 feet above sea level. No other insect travels as far. Taylor greatly admires the monarch, particularly when he views them en masse in Mexico.
“For many people who have seen this, it’s kind of a life-changing experience,” he says. “The fact that this insect is using the same continent we do and is dependent on us to maintain that habitat—that has to resonate with people.”