This summer, many families plan to travel for vacation. Maybe a trip to the beach or out west to the mountains. Some of these trips require a day or two of driving long distances. One species of butterfly could be considered the ultimate trip planner.
Monarch butterflies are easily recognized by their large, vibrant orange wings and carry out one of the most incredible cross-continental journeys. They often will travel over 3000 miles from the mountains in central Mexico to Canada. During the trip, Monarchs need food and breeding sites. There are many plants that provide nectar for food but only one species of plant that they need for the caterpillars to grow and develop.
Monarch caterpillars have to have milkweed, and lots of it. Loss of milkweed throughout the migration path is blamed for the decline in Monarch populations. Several other factors are contributing factors such as drought conditions in California, habitat loss in the overwintering sites in Mexico due to logging, and increased use of insecticides and herbicides. In recent years, the population decline is estimated to be as high as 90%.
Helping the Monarchs is simple. When planning your gardens this season, consider planting plants that provide food and breeding sites for the journey. Milkweeds are desperately needed. There are several species of milkweed that include swamp milkweed, prairie milkweed, butterfly milkweed, and common milkweed. Many of them have beautiful blooms that will fit in most landscapes easily.
Several species have been identified as favorites to provide nectar. Asters, coneflowers, lanceleaf tickseed, common boneset, stiff sunflower, and tall blazing star are just a few that will provide nectar during the critical times the Monarch will be traveling through the Midwest.
For landowners, several plants that grow wild in our area are important. Ironweed, sneezeweed, and joe pye weed are just a few that likely are naturally abundant in your pastures or along the fencerows on your property. Consider waiting until late fall before you cut these plants. That will give ample time for the Monarch migration to pass our area on the way back to the fir forests in Mexico.
Not only do these plants help butterflies but also most other pollinators such as bees and wasps. Pollinators are extremely important to food production and every little bit we can do to help is important. Dr. Daniel Potter and Adam Baker (doctoral student) at the University of Kentucky recently reported that based on their research, Monarchs “readily find and use small, urban gardens as stepping stones during their incredible cross-continental, annual migration to Mexico”. Currently, Potter and Baker are looking at the best design of butterfly gardens to provide the most benefit.
If you have questions about what you can do to help Monarchs or other pollinators, give us a call at the Henderson County Extension Office; we are happy to help!
Submitted by Andrew Rideout, Agent for Horticulture, Henderson Co. Cooperative Extension Service