The summer of 2013 was a very bad year for the monarch butterfly. All summer long, I thought it was odd that I never saw a monarch. Reasons are not 100% clear but impacts include weather factors, loss of habitat in the US and Mexico, increased traffic on roads, and the extensive use of Roundup on genetically engineered crops. Farmers spray Roundup on these crops, killing all the weeds but not the crop. The herbicide destroys milkweed upon which the monarch depends as a host plant.
This summer I am doing my part to go a little more native. In addition to nectar flowers, I’ve planted native milkweed. If the monarch finds my plants, I should have a monarch butterfly nursery. The plants will provide sustenance for the larvae.The blooms will provide nectar along with other nectar plants in the garden.
There are different varieties of milkweed but I planted butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) with its bright orange bloom. It should do well in hot, dry, sunny spot in the border. The hint of first blooms are appearing and I am checking my plants daily for signs of eggs.
What can we all do to help? While we hope for more favorable weather conditions, we can all plant several milkweed plants in our yards along with the nectar plants to sustain both the larvae and the adult monarch.
Male Monarch resting. Originally I thought this was a female but was corrected by Linda of socialbtrflies.com. The black dots on the hind wings are ‘scent pouches,’ identifying him as a male.
Migration is underway. We’re beginning to see more of the monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) magically drifting southward on their August journey to Mexico. One of the few insects able to make the trans-Atlantic crossing, the East Coast monarchs winter in Mexico, then make the amazing return journey back each spring.
Interestingly, monarchs only live a few short weeks and those born earlier in the summer do not make the southern journey. Those born at this time of the year, usually the 3rd or 4th generation of monarchs, are the ones to make that southern migration and survive the winter. It is amazing how instinct kicks in as a different butterfly makes the arduous journey each year, traveling up to 30 miles a day.
Illegal logging in Mexico has reduced the winter habitat for the insect however the Mexican government has begun to crack down on this problem. What can you do to help the monarch butterfly? Plant milkweed, folks. It’s the only plant the caterpillar can eat. Due to toxins absorbed from the milkweed plant as a caterpillar, the monarch does not have many predators. The bright colors the butterfly wears is an advertisement that says, “I’m poison.” The viceroy butterfly has evolved to mimic the color and pattern of the monarch as a defense although it is non-toxic.
If you spot a monarch butterfly fluttering by, there are websites that would like to keep track of your sightings. I report my sightings to Monarch Butterfly Journey North, a great website that provides migration updates with maps and provides excellent information on the life of this special insect.
Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester