“Flyover” by Adra Fisher. Watercolor and pen.
“Flyover” by Adra Fisher. Watercolor and pen. (Click to enlarge)

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.

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    Adra Fisher grew up in Winchester, moved away in her ear­ly 20s and returned a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry lat­er. She enjoys all types of art and encour­ag­ing oth­ers to live creatively.