What would you say if I told you that one of the most iconic butterfly species in the world was near collapse? Well folks, it’s happening. The majestic Monarch butterfly is in real trouble. For many of you reading this, it could disappear in your lifetime. Actually, Monarchs have declined by nearly one billion, 90 percent of their population, since 1990 – that’s less than 30 years.
The loss of the Monarch is not just about a butterfly; the damage reveals the symptom of a much larger problem. All other pollinators face the same issues, such as habitat loss, use of pesticides and herbicides, etc. The decline is so dramatic that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is leading a campaign in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation and National Fish & Wildlife Foundation to try to reverse the downward population spiral. You may have read about species decline before, felt badly about it, and then quickly became apathetic. After all, what can you do about dying butterflies? In this case, you can do a lot!
One thing that monarchs need more than any other is a plant called, milkweed (Asclepias species). They cannot survive without it! Monarch females (do they call them Queens?) only lay their eggs on milkweed and their caterpillars only eat milkweed. As more and more land becomes developed, and family farms give way to larger industrial farms, milkweed is disappearing from the landscape.
While most of the lower 48 states have monarchs and can grow milkweed, it turns out that the “corn belt” is the highest monarch production area. This invisible “belt” encircles all of Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and parts of Kansas, Nebraska, South and North Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky. This may sound like a lot of area, but when you see it on a map it is only a small portion of the country. The cool thing is that Missouri is fully included. Here is where you come into the rescue picture.
This is the time of year when many people begin to plan their gardens. You can create a monarch habitat in your backyard and make a difference to these lovely creatures. There are actually six different milkweed species that grow in our region: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) and Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata). While most milkweeds are sun loving, you may want to plant some taller shrubs or small trees for your butterflies to roost in overnight. Also, don’t forget a bird bath with large stones in the center or, other ways to offer water to these thirsty migratory species.
Monarchs migrate to a southern home in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico to overwinter. (Monarchs in Western North America overwinter in California.) One generation of the monarch butterfly will fly south to Mexico, however, it may take three to four different generations to fly back to North America in the spring and summer.
To keep these royal butterflies around for generations to come, theirs and ours, please plant some milkweed this year and every year. Make your backyard an invitation to wildlife and bring some beauty to your doorstep.
-- Lynn Youngblood is the Executive Director of the Blue River Watershed Association; a certified Residential Energy Client Service Coordinator by the National Energy Retrofit Institute; and a former nature center manager with the Missouri Department of Conservation.