Every March the spectacular migration of the Monarch butterfly from Mexico, parts of southern Florida and southern California begins. The migrating butterflies will head north, and most will make it to about Texas. In Texas, the first generation will lay their eggs and die. Once hatched, the next generation will head north once again. Most will stop in the corn belt states of the United States and will stay there until about August. Some will continue on into Canada and some will head east to the New England states and repeat the birthing process. In the corn belt states, the female butterflies will once again lay their eggs and die. This pattern will repeat for about 3-4 generations throughout the summer months. The final generation will spread their wings and begin the return journey south around August 15th. Each Monarch will travel about 25-30 miles a day. The entire migration route is about 2,000 miles. Can you imagine traveling 2,000 miles without a motor vehicle? True, they will take advantage of head winds when possible. But what a journey. Experts agree that the Monarchs will return to the exact same overwintering trees as their ancestors. An innate sense of direction and belonging must exist.
In Mexico, the Monarchs will overwinter on Oyamel fir trees in huge groups. The Oyamel fir tree provides the right amount of protection from the elements and the right type of bark for the butterflies to cling to. It is awe-inspiring to see the color of orange from overhead photos among the trees. At the same time, it is frustrating to see the open areas of land where the trees have been harvested next to the overwintering areas. This contributes to the decreasing numbers of the Monarch butterfly.
According to livemonarch.com, the number of Monarch butterflies dropped 97% from their high in 2015. 97%!! They have, however, had a slight increase in numbers this year. But are very much still in danger of becoming extinct.
Can you imagine not going into your garden (or the public gardens) and seeing a Monarch butterfly (or any other type of butterfly) in the summer months? Or not being able to show your grandchildren or great-grandchildren what a butterfly looks like? I even remember the fun of putting together an insect collection in junior high school. Butterflies were among the many insects that were studied and discussed. True, we did have to euthanize the insects to complete the display, but there were no concerns about the dwindling numbers at that time. And each collection was a prize that was also a learning tool for the rest of the students in the class.
Besides the disappearance of Oyamel fir trees, other Monarch habitats are disappearing as well. Milkweed plants have dwindled in numbers and this is only source of food for the Monarch larvae. Other factors have also contributed to the decline. This includes; parasites, predators, climate change and disease, to name a few.
Fortunately, efforts have been initiated to stop the decline. Government groups, citizen groups and individuals are working hard to help save the Monarch butterfly. In 2016, 4 million dollars has been allocated to help increase the habitats of Monarch butterflies as well as other pollinators (in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Indiana). You can help.
In the corn belt states, Milkweed plants have long been considered a nuisance by farmers and farm families. The common Milkweed can be invasive. (Most of us are familiar with the Milkweed fluff that has a seed attached to the end. Once the seed pods form, they are filled with the fluff and seeds. It is my understanding that the common Milkweed also has underground runners that help it spread. Once established, it is difficult to eradicate.) But did you know that other types of Milkweed are available that are not invasive? These include; Rose Milkweed, Butterfly Weed, Swamp Milkweed and Whorled Milkweed for our growing area in central Illinois. All of these types of Milkweed are considered host plants for the Monarch larvae and can be great assets to your landscape! In addition, free seeds or plugs are available for several of them and they require little care once established. Native plants are usually low-maintenance and hardy. As they are better suited to the growing conditions in the area, they will usually weather conditions such as drought, extreme heat, varmints and insects. Milkweeds are also perennials and do not need to be replanted each year. Talk about a win-win situation!
In addition, butterflies of all types require nectar as food and to fuel their return migration. Lists of native nectar plants are available on-line, from the University of Illinois Extension office, the US Department of Agriculture and The Simple Heart of Life herb shop. Even planting one or two groupings (of 4 or more plants each) of these types of plants will help the butterflies and other pollinators such as bees. Most of these plants are as beautiful as they are useful. In the Jacksonville, Illinois area, native plants will be available at several plant sales on April 26th and May 21st at Prairie land Heritage Museum and the Morgan County Fairgrounds on April 30th. Plants are grown and sold by the Morgan County Garden Club as well as University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners and Naturalists.
Join the efforts and help to save the Monarch migration. Teach kids and adults alike about the importance of preserving the beauty of today so they will be able to enjoy it tomorrow and for future generations to come. Monarch butterflies and pollinators of all types are another of life’s simple pleasures. A pleasure to be treasured and enjoyed!