How to Help Monarch Butterflies: Got Milkweed?

A beautiful 5th instar “cat” found on narrowleaf milkweed
~Kenda Swartz Pepper

Monarch butterflies have been on earth for roughly 175 million years, but it’s only since the 1990’s that their numbers have declined by 80%. In 25 short years, 560 of the 700 million Monarch butterflies in North America have disappeared.

Putting that into perspective:

If you compress the entire existence of butterflies into just my lifetime of 50 years, then this precipitous decline of 80% has occurred over the last 3 minutes and 45 seconds. This would be considered a crisis of colossal proportions, but because it’s been insidiously occurring over the last 25-27 years, chipping away at the one of the most universally recognized, mysterious, and adored insects in the world – an iconic symbol of natural beauty – humans, as a species, the main contributors to this decline, are not reacting in kind. If we were to witness the decimation of 560 million butterflies in 3 minutes and 45 seconds, we would take note, and we would take action.

I can barely contain myself when I see a Monarch butterfly. It’s a lovefest. Is it the stunning fiery brilliance they carry to trees, shrubs, and the sky? Could it be the unique patterning making them the most familiar butterfly in history? Maybe. But mostly I love them because they are an unmistakable symbol of perseverance and transformation. These remarkable little beings have a migration like no other. Each fall one generation travels 3000 miles to sustain their existence on earth. They endure the most difficult situations on that journey – strong winds, heavy rains in some places, drought in other places, lack of food, lack of shelter, and on and on. Then, in spring, their offspring make the trek back to the same places from which their ancestors came.

They persist despite the arduous journey, miraculous metamorphosis, and mysterious migration. But their battle does not end with seeking food, water, and shelter. They have much more than the daily survival-related obstacles with which to grapple. They also have to battle multinational, multibillion-dollar, agrochemical companies.

The Monarch, a stunning example of nature’s magic and perseverance has survived millions of years through the ice age, the stone age, and the industrial age, but is no contest for the habitat destruction and 1 billion pounds of pesticides (both herbicides and insecticides) used each year in the US alone. These resilient and iconic winged beings are losing the battle to human activity.

What can you do to help the Monarchs survive?

DISCONTINUE the use of synthetic pesticides –herbicides and insecticides

One day perhaps I’ll write about our recent visit to France and the beautiful weeds we saw along the roadsides and sidewalks, in town centers, parks, and in yards. The French government and people are taking a stand for the pollinators (seemingly driven by a need to protect bees given their great affinity for honey) with a general ban on pesticides for domestic use. When a community unites and stops adding toxic elements to their environment, they are choosing health over convenience and a future for their children’s children that includes the magic and charm of a fluttering natural world. At the current rate in North America, the unborn generations will only know about Monarch butterflies through books.

So, despite the recommendations of some, when millions of households use toxins as a tool for dealing with nuisance pests and weeds, the outcome has a widespread and lasting impact. A toxic convenience is not the solution that will help our dirty air, dying soil, befouled water, and struggling wildlife. Most homeowners are not grappling with issues of invasive weeds. Most of us simply have been habituated to look at a weed as an unsightly enemy and not as a source of food or habitat for wildlife, and that the quickest and most cost-effective way to eradicate the pest is through a spray bottle. The hidden costs are astronomical.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops, Research is showing that homeowners now share culpability with agriculture for pollinator decline. Weed killers and insecticides are tainting pollen that bees bring back to their hives and nests. A growing body of research suggests that, even at non-lethal doses, pesticides can disrupt bee navigation thus losing their way. Broods perish when the females don’t return to the nest. Pesticides make all pollinators vulnerable to stress and disease, prematurely killing them.

Pesticides are destroying vital habitat for our beneficial insects. These problems are not limited to neonicotinoids and glyphosate (Roundup). Studies are showing the combined effect of various pesticides from different sources in the air, on our soil, in the water, can increase or intensify when these chemicals interact with one another.

There is no time like the present to try something convenient, less expensive, and less toxic. 
The Jackson County Master Gardeners have published a recipe for making your own vinegar based alternative to the weedkiller RoundUp (glyphosate):

  • 1 gallon 10 per cent vinegar
  • 1 cup of salt
  • 2 tsp Dawn dish soap or vegetable oil (to make it adhere to the plant)

GROW native milkweed
 and forage plants

Monarchs only lay eggs on milkweed. No milkweed, no monarchs. A monarch mama-to-be will die looking for milkweed. If she finds it, she may lay roughly 300 eggs. If she doesn’t, the earth loses 300 monarch baby caterpillar opportunities. By growing milkweed, you will help this vital butterfly, an internationally-known ambassador of the earth, survive. Grow native milkweed from seeds or find plants at your local nursery. Many nurseries still spray their plants, so please ask before you buy. Let your consumer choices be the change you want to see in the world. If your local nursery sprays, tell the owner they lost a customer. Xerces’ Milkweed Seed Finder is the best place to start.

The Illinois Tollway Board is planting milkweed along the nearly 300 miles of interstate highways to help the Monarchs. They will be restricting their use of glyphosate and mowing only once a year. Yay.

The Monarch Joint Venture has a cluster of resources for creating Monarch habitat. In addition to resources like specific milkweed for each region and specific instructions on creating Monarch habitat (including milkweed seed propagation), Monarch Watch is looking for the public’s assistance for seed donations and restoration efforts.

Here in Southern Oregon, showy milkweed (Asclepias species) and narrowleaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) are native and provide both a host plant for the monarch and an excellent nectar source for many pollinators including monarchs.

Provide forage flowers for adult monarchs. With milkweed and forage flowers, you can create and certify a Monarch Waystation! Some Monarch flower favorites in Oregon include:

  • Native milkweeds (a host and forage)
  • Coyote Mint
  • Giant Hyssop
  • Foxglove Beardtongue
  • Wild buckwheat
  • Western Goldenrod
  • Rubber Rabbitbrush
  • Asters
  • Oceanspray
  • Dwarf Butterfly Bush (this is a noninvasive butterfly bush)

My monarch waystation at home has sustained bloom from April to late October.

DISCONTINUE supporting BigAg and avoid genetically modified food

Between the depleted habitat created by BigAg in the midwest (a major thoroughfare for the migrating Monarchs) and the certainty of crops like soy and corn being heavily sprayed with pesticides (both herbicides and insecticides), Monarch populations are dwindling. BigAg, because of intensive farming practices is harming the earth in countless and striking ways. The best way to avoid GM foods is to buy organic from your local farmer, but not everyone can afford that. Next best is your small-scale farmer who uses sustainable farming methods. Otherwise, you may have to remove corn, soy, canola, cottonseed (usually cottonseed oil), and sugar beets from your diet. No easy task in the US! Nearly 70% of processed foods have genetically modified ingredients.

GO outside and love on a butterfly!

Tell us what you’re doing at home to create space for your pollineighbors? 
What do you think about creating a pollinator oasis?
 Share those wild ideas in the comments section.

Keep an eye out for the next post. I’ll be sharing some cool pics and video from my monarch-raising experience this summer! You, too, can be a monarch foster parent and help repopulate this vital species.

The Beekman Native Plant Arboretum is located in Jacksonville, Oregon.

 

 

12 Comments:

  1. Love that monarch way station!! <3

  2. Thank you dear Kenda for this well written blog warning us about yet another species on the brink of extinction. The devastating toll human greed and destruction has taken on Mama Earth and her inhabitants will ultimately lead to disappearance of homo sapiens. Peace and One Love…

    • Hello sweet Aria,

      Thank you for reading!

      It’s painful to consider the destruction, I know. There is hope. There is a rising demographic of grassroots activists (like yourself!) who are making big efforts and strides in their own communities. I believe monarchs will be saved by citizen scientists who are planting toxic-free milkweed and forage flowers.

      But you’re right, Mama Earth is struggling beneath the weight of resource-abusers. I hope humans wake up in time. Peace and One Love to you. xo

  3. And the monarchs are beginning to arrive here in Pacific Grove! Fingers crossed we see a bountiful supply of our little friends, and that the squirrel stops eating them.

    • I’ve raised and released dozens of monarchs this year (still 5 more chrysalides to go). Maybe you’ll see some of them?

      Prior to release, I trained them all on tactical combat against squirrel appetite. Seriously, that would throw me over the edge watching squirrels eat monarchs. Is it because there isn’t enough other kinds of food for the squirrels? oy

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