You may have seen in the news recently that one of nature’s most luminous creatures, the migratory monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus), is now considered endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a Switzerland-based environmental organization that keeps a close eye on our natural world.
This news affects us here at home since these stunning butterflies pass through Winchester during their annual migrations, bringing not only joy and beauty to our daily lives but also pollination proficiency — they literally help feed us.
Experts who track this revered monarch subspecies say that since the 1990s their numbers have dwindled significantly in our nation’s Corn Belt, which includes Kentucky.
Why the decline? There are lots of reasons, but in a nutshell, two main ones: loss of habitat (due to urbanization and pesticide use) and climate change.
Without getting into finger-pointing, the bottom line is that we have all played a part in creating this unfortunate situation. The good news is that we can take steps to rectify it. Multiple species have been pulled back from the brink of extinction over the years, so perhaps with some human assistance, monarchs can enjoy that same happy fate.
Migratory monarchs are warm-weather marathoners, crisscrossing the U.S. between Mexico and Canada every summer making love, having babies, and eating and drinking their way across the Americas — kind of like we used to do (well, maybe not the having-babies part), before COVID-19 made surrendering to wanderlust a health hazard and gas and food prices shot through the roof.
If you can remember your last long road trip, you probably recall at various points scanning the horizon for a Cracker Barrel sign or some other favorite food joint; maybe looking for a Hampton Inn or Marriott because you know you like their bedding.
Monarchs do the same thing, only what they’re looking for are plants. I’m going to anthropomorphize here and speculate that like us, monarchs get more than a little hangry after hours of exhausting travel with no place good to stop. Some even drop dead out of sheer exhaustion and starvation when all they see on their flyovers are buildings, highways, chemical-drenched landscapes, and humans going about their lives apparently oblivious to their plight.
As stated earlier, migratory monarchs are important pollinators. This fact alone is nothing to sneeze at and should be kept in mind when we consider how to respond to their documented decline. (The world’s population is growing and people have to eat, don’t forget.) And like all prolific pollinators, monarchs’ activities affect multiple ecosystems in ways we may not even be aware of. In other words, they matter.
So what can we do to help them?
First and foremost, if we haven’t done so already, we can not only acknowledge that climate change is real, but we can think, behave, and vote accordingly. This might be a tall order for some of us, but I still have some faith in humanity.
If we’re lucky enough to have a yard, we can look into ways to make it more monarch-friendly (info on that below). If we don’t have property of our own, we can encourage those who do — including those who own and manage public parks as well as private lands — to do the same. (Kudos here to the folks at Legacy Grove Park, who it appears have installed some monarch-friendly plantings in their upper parking lot median.)
As far as what, specifically, makes an area monarch friendly, we’re talking primarily about vegetation (and elimination/reduction of chemicals — obviously). There are two kinds of plants that migratory monarchs look for while traveling: milkweed (Asclepias spp.) for breeding/larvae development and nectar-producing plants for adult sustenance.
Since milkweed is the only plant on which monarch caterpillars feed, planting some will attract monarch mothers-to-be, as well as those who are just hungry for nectar. Eggs laid on milkweed plants hatch into beautiful black-and-yellow-striped caterpillars that feast on the plants’ leaves until they pupate — their final metamorphic stage before adulthood.
Thirsty adult monarchs seeking their favorite energy drink, nectar, will flock not only to milkweed, but to a multitude of flowering plants — think zinnias, butterfly bush, black-eyed Susans, Joe Pye Weed, redbud, and sumac, to name just a few. Having nectar-rich blooms available throughout our growing season can help weary winged travelers stay refreshed and en route.
And while butterfly gardens are gorgeous, if the focus is on monarchs, a monarch waystation is the better way to go. These monarch-specific pit stops, even on a small scale, have been found to be effective and beneficial. University of Kentucky entomologists Adam M. Baker and Daniel A. Potter have published a fantastic one-page publication on this very topic (see the link below to access it). In it, they explain — among other things — that while there are eight varieties of milkweed that grow in our region, the taller A. incarnata, A. speciosa, and A. syrica are their top three choices for most settings. Planting location matters, too, they maintain, recommending that for easy access and identification from the air, taller milkweeds situated along the perimeters of planting areas draw more monarch visitors than specimen plants sited in the middle or back of mixed borders. Who knew?
And finally, for those interested in joining monarch-friendly groups, the Xerces Society (https://xerces.org) and Monarch Watch (https://monarchwatch.org) have fascinating websites that are informative and plugged into the conservation community.
So far this summer, I have yet to see a monarch in Winchester, but I’m keeping a watchful eye out. Swallowtails, fritillaries, and painted ladies are visiting my zinnia patch regularly these days — but so far, no monarchs. It’s only early August, though, and I’m still hopeful. It would be a real loss if these magnificent creatures disappeared completely from the skies and gardens of Winchester.
Here’s the link to the University of Kentucky monarch waystation article. The first page is blank, so scroll to page 2 to see all of the great information.