The thought that her grandchildren might never see a monarch butterfly terrifies Mary Kowalski.
So Kowalski is nurturing five monarch caterpillars she found on the milkweed plants outside her DeKalb home in hopes they will transform into the iconic orange and black winged insects.
Kowalski's fears aren't far-fetched, some local experts say.
Monarch butterflies make a remarkable journey from the upper Midwest to Mexico every year, but the number of monarchs measured in Mexico has declined by 97 percent since its peak more than 25 years ago, say scientists with the World Wildlife Fund that measures the population annually.
The decline has prompted local conservationists and residents to bolster supplies of milkweed, the plant crucial to monarch survival that also has been disappearing.
But it's not just what's happening to monarchs that has them concerned.
“I'm concerned about our world,” Kowalski said. “They used to send a canary into a coal mine and if it died, they knew there was poison gas. Is this our canary in a coal mine?”
For Peggy Doty, an environmental and energy stewardship educator with University of Illinois Extension, the scary part about the monarchs' decline is what it means for other pollinators and insects.
“I think the monarch is an easy poster child,” Doty said. "But this is happening to a lot of other pollinators. No pollinators, no food.”
Pat Miller spends her days educating people in northern Illinois about conservation issues, such as the declining population of monarch butterflies, the state insect that appears in Illinois from May to September. She's a conservation specialist with Monarch Watch, a nationwide organization based out of the University of Kansas.
“I think the average person should care about monarchs because it's an indicator,” Miller said. “What's happening to monarchs is happening to other insects. We just can't track them.”
Scientists measure the monarch population by observing how much area they cover in overwintering sites in Mexico. According to Monarch Watch, when measured this winter, monarchs covered 1.65 acres, a dismal figure compared to the 51.8 acres they covered at their peak in the winter of 1997.
“We don't think they'll ever achieve the numbers they once had,” Miller said. “The good thing, though, about insects is they can produce at rapid rates.”
Monarchs exclusively lay their eggs on milkweed, because it provides all the nutrients the black, white and yellow banded caterpillars need. After they mature into butterflies, they will migrate thousands of miles to Mexico, Miller said.
However, Miller explained, milkweed plants are disappearing because of things such as modern farming practices. Milkweed previously thrived along fence rows or among corn and soybean fields. But milkweed has been a victim of advancements in herbicides and disappearing fencerows, Miller said.
Ensuring milkweed survives so monarchs can thrive is far from farmers' minds, said Russ Higgins, an educator at the University of Illinois Extension farm in Waterman. Allowing milkweed can decrease a farmer's crop yield with very little payoff, he said.
While beautiful, monarchs are not prolific pollinators. Even if they were, corn and soybeans don't require pollination.
“What does the farmer get out of it other than supporting the monarch population?” Higgins asked. “As management plans are made currently, it's not something high on the radar. I don't think producers are intentionally trying to harm the monarch population, but clearly farmers have to make a living.”
Higgins also pointed to places outside farm fields that used to host bountiful milkweed such as well-manicured yards. He suggested homeowners find a place for milkweed in their gardens, a task that some local homeowners have already undertaken.
Customers flock to monarch-attracting plants like butterfly or swamp milkweed and nectar-rich flowers at Blumen Gardens in Sycamore, said co-owner Joel Barczak. Barczak made it a personal mission to foster the monarch population about a dozen years ago after he traveled to the fir forests in Mexico during January.
“There had been a cold snap and there had to have been one feet deep of dead or dormant monarchs,” Barczak said.
He recommended creating a 5-by-5-foot area in a yard with milkweed and nectar-producing flowers as a means to offer monarchs a place to eat and lay eggs.
Kowalski has yet to see a monarch this year, but she knows at least one was in the milkweed she purposely planted three years ago outside her home.
About a week ago she discovered four caterpillars no bigger than the space between lines on a sheet of notebook paper and one slightly bigger. She took them inside her home and placed them in a tupperware container with plenty of milkweed for them to eat.
The larger caterpillar has already progressed through the five stages of skin shedding, known as instars. The transforming insect now hangs in a chrysalis from a butterfly pavilion, a mesh tube that looks like it could double as a laundry basket. She expects it will emerge as a butterfly in five days, at which point she'll release it.
“I'll feel happy,” Kowalski said. “And I'll feel hope.”