Monarchs are in decline; we can help

Lynn Youngblood
The green space

For the last several years, I’ve been planting different types of milkweed (Asclepias species) in my gardens for monarch butterflies 

Lynn Youngblood

I heard reports that monarch populations were declining. In fact, monarchs have declined by nearly 1 billion – 90% of their population – since 1990. I can attest that last year, I did not have one monarch visit my gardens and never saw one monarch caterpillar. I am happy to report that this year, I’ve seen several monarchs and my milkweed was covered with their caterpillars. 

One thing that monarchs need more than any other is milkweed. 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 is developed and family farms give way to larger industrial farms, milkweed is disappearing from the landscape. 

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 and Wildlife Foundation to try to reverse the population spiral. 

You may have read about species decline before, felt badly about it, and then become apathetic. After all, what can you do about dying butterflies? In this case, you can do a lot! 

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 belt crosses 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, but when you see it on a map it is only a small portion of the country. Here is where you come into the rescue picture. 

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; not to be confused with butterfly plant) 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 this 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 or 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 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 in Kansas City. Reach her at TheGreenSpace@sbcglobal.net. 

Check out some of the photos that Lynn has taken of the Monarchs that have visited her gardens on Instagram, at TheGreenSpaceKC.