The rest of the insect world might be subtler than the gaudy monarch; more time and work are required to get to know it. But that knowledge can open up a richer and more empowering conception of nature than one gets from hanging everything on the success or failure of a single species of butterfly. This work starts with recognizing the hidden biodiversity that lurks everywhere—under the leaves in our gardens and the bark of our trees, in the soil, and even inside shivering dried-out flower and grass stalks that provide homes for native bees in winter.
“If you want the zebra swallowtail, you have to have pawpaw,” says Tallamy. “If you want the oak-leaf skeletonizer, you need oaks.” Few of us can effortlessly rattle off plant-insect mutualisms like this. But we can learn which plants host the most insect species—oak, cherry, and willow top the list in my neck of the woods—and choose them over conventional landscaping fare.
“Our life is frittered away by detail,” Thoreau wrote. “Simplify, simplify.” In nature, life is not frittered away by detail; it is detail. Complexify, complexify.
So where does that leave us with the monarch? Compared with most of the species Tallamy has found in his yard, the monarch butterfly was probably an occasional visitor to this part of the world back when forests dominated. Seeking to preserve the monarch migration means holding on to something that we have, to a large extent, helped create. There’s nothing wrong with that. I view it as the same impulse that drives us to protect farmland from suburban sprawl, or antiquities from decay and destruction. I believe the great (and, sadly, recently deceased) monarch expert Lincoln Brower might even have been hinting at this with his favorite answer to a persistent question: What difference would it make if the monarch migration ended?
“What difference would it make if we lost the Mona Lisa?” he countered. The modern, continental-scale monarch migration could indeed be one of humanity’s greatest works.
However, I would argue that, with its endlessly superfluous and stunning and, frankly, often absurd life forms—from speckled and polka-dotted and eyespotted moths to apocalyptically armored beetles to the hundreds of thousands of wasp species that lay eggs inside caterpillars and other insects so that hatching larvae can eat their hosts from the inside—nature has produced a strange and wonderful body of work that outshines even the monarch migration.
Read: The butterflies’ great migration
And here I think the Mona Lisa analogy suggests a second point: We care about the monarch and its migration not because it is useful to us, but because it is something far more important than useful—it is meaningful, and beautiful, to us.
The same is true for nature’s riotous, unruly, unreasonable abundance. Utility will never provide a compelling rationale for preserving biodiversity. We’ve grown wealthy even as we’ve driven species to extinction. The authors of a major recent UN report warn that if we continue to pummel the biosphere, we will pay the price at some point, in the form of food insecurity, polluted water, and other lost ecosystem services. In the long term, they are right, of course. But I suspect we can probably continue on our current exploitative path for some time before the toll becomes obvious.