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How to help save the Monarch butterfly

An endangered Monarch butterfly on its favorite plant, milkweed.
An endangered Monarch butterfly on its favorite plant, milkweed.
Kim Willis

Researchers and naturalists are very worried about the future of the monarch butterfly. Their numbers have been falling each year but this year the numbers of butterflies overwintering in Mexico has fallen to alarming lows. Ten years ago Monarchs covered about 45 acres of land in their Mexican winter home, where they mostly rest in trees. This year monarchs covered only about 1.6 acres of land.

As they work their way north this year the unusual cold weather, drought and loss of habitat are going to whittle down the returning flock. Monarchs usually stop somewhere in the southwest to reproduce and then the new generation proceeds to more northerly areas, where they reproduce the generation that will return to Mexico. The first wave of butterflies comes through Texas which has had a drought and numerous wildfires that have drastically reduced milkweed for reproduction and flowering plants the adults need.

There’s an effort in the southwest to plant milkweed and preserve areas which monarchs like to help restore populations. We need to take up the cause here for the survivors who make it through, so they can successfully reproduce the generation that will return to Mexico. You can do so by planting ornamental milkweeds in the garden, but most importantly by allowing native milkweeds to grow, even though they might not be as pretty as some cultivated types. The Queen butterfly, rare in Michigan, also requires milkweed for reproduction.

Consider not mowing that whole acre in front of the house and let some of it revert to native plants. Do one mowing very early in the spring to keep shrub growth down then don’t mow so milkweed can grow. Milkweed is not good for cows and horses to eat but they seldom touch it so leaving some in pastures shouldn’t hurt unless your animals are hungry. Allow a few common milkweed plants to grow in the back of the flower border or in a corner of the yard.

Milkweed is a perennial plant. You can dig up plants and transplant them but they have extensive root systems and transplanting young plants is easiest. You can harvest the distinctive seed pods and scatter the fluffy seeds over your property to start plants from seed. While greenhouses offer some ornamental varieties of milkweed, some non-native- that do attract butterflies I have rarely seen monarch egg clusters on them. Instead monarchs seem to prefer the common milkweed Asclepias syriaca or swamp milkweed Asclepias incarnate. The Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa is a pretty decent garden plant that also attracts monarchs.

It’s also important to leave some favorite nectar sources for Monarchs growing so that they can fuel up for their journey south. Goldenrod, thistles and Joe Pye Weed are all late summer nectar sources Monarchs love.

Another way to help all butterflies is to reduce pesticide use on your property. Lawn pesticides are especially hard on milkweeds which are broad leaved plants and insecticides can kill butterflies on contact or when they sip nectar from plants treated with systemic pesticides.

Monarchs are iconic butterflies; even school children can identify them. It would be a shame if we lost this species but a concerted effort by humans and a little bit of luck with the weather may keep them from disappearing.

Here are some additional articles you may want to read.

Should we allow 2-4-D resistant crops?

Turning dandelions into rubber and a new farm crop

All about wooly bear caterpillars

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