How to help endangered monarch butterflies

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Last week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s leading authority on the state of biological diversity, declared monarch butterflies endangered.

Both western and eastern populations of monarch butterflies have been in decline for decades. Recent data shows a 23% to 72% reduction in numbers over the past 10 years. However, the IUCN designation marks the first time the monarch butterfly has been officially declared endangered.

The monarch butterfly’s struggle to survive is the result of habitat destruction, increased use of pesticides, and disruptions along its migration route caused by extreme weather events linked to climate change.

Now, more than ever, everyone needs to make an effort to conserve monarch butterfly populations. Here in northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania, those efforts should begin in your community gardens, local parks, backyards, meadows, and farm fields. There is a way for all of us to do our part, no matter how big or small.

Create a butterfly garden

Butterfly gardens are made up of a combination of host and nectariferous plants that provide food for the adult and larval stages of butterflies.

Monarch butterfly caterpillars are particularly finicky in that they only feed on milkweed plants. As a result, milkweed is the only host plant for the monarch butterfly. Fortunately, there are 13 species of milkweed native to Ohio that monarch butterflies will use as host plants. These varieties include:

  • butterfly grass
  • Kissing-leaved Milkweed
  • common milkweed
  • green milkweed
  • Green Flowering Milkweed
  • honey-vine
  • milkweed
  • purple milkweed
  • spider milkweed
  • Sullivant’s Milkweed
  • marsh milkweed
  • white milkweed
  • Milkweed

Butterfly milkweed, common milkweed, purple milkweed, Sullivant’s milkweed and swamp milkweed are preferred larval hosts.

It is important to plant native varieties of milkweed rather than tropical varieties because tropical varieties stay green all year round and can convince them not to migrate for the winter.

Milkweed plants grow easily from seed when sown in the fall. However, they take a few years to flower, so you will need to be patient when trying to establish a stand of milkweed.

Learn more about choosing the right milkweed species for your garden and establishing a milkweed stand by reading How to choose milkweed for your garden, landscape.

In addition to many host plants, your butterfly garden should offer plenty of nectar plants that provide a continuous food supply from early spring to early fall. Butterflies are attracted to red, orange, purple, pink and yellow flowers with sweet scents. Some native wildflowers that monarch butterflies prefer include:

  • ash sunflower
  • black eyed susan
  • Dense Blazing Star
  • New England Aster
  • Ohio Goldenrod
  • Bullseye Sunflower
  • Prairie wharf
  • purple echinacea
  • Rattlesnake-Master
  • barren aster
  • smooth aster
  • Joe-Pye spotted
  • stiff goldenrod
  • Great Iron Grass
  • Narrow-Leaved Mountain Mint

Nectar-producing native wildflowers should be planted in clusters to attract monarch butterflies, as it is easier for them to notice large clusters of flowers. They are also attracted to flat-topped flowers that provide a landing platform such as sunflowers or asters.

You can improve your butterfly garden by planting it in full sun, protecting it from wind, damp areas and puddles, and placing rotten fruit or stale beer to attract more butterflies.

Learn more about establishing a butterfly garden and choosing nectar and host plants by reading How to Create a Butterfly Garden. In addition, palms round out the lists of disturbing host and nectar plants for a variety of butterfly species here.

Limit the use of pesticides

Limiting the use of pesticides in your garden will not only help monarch butterflies, but it will also help protect other butterflies, pollinators, and beneficial insects. There are ways to protect your garden from pests without harming monarchs.

  1. Leave the milkweed alone. Whatever strategies you use to control pests in your garden, milkweed should be left alone. It is the sole host plant for monarch butterflies and also provides a source of nectar. Milkweed should never be treated with pesticides and likely won’t need much maintenance. It is resilient and spreads quickly when given the space to do so.
  2. Plant more natives. Native plants provide more benefits to wildlife and are better equipped to survive in your garden. They naturally require less maintenance.
  3. Space the plants. When plants are spaced according to their mature size and gardens are not overcrowded, this limits a pest’s ability to spread throughout the garden.
  4. Don’t bring pests home. Before bringing plants home from the nursery, inspect them carefully to make sure you don’t introduce pests.
  5. Live with some presence of pests. Some level of pest presence is normal and natural. Caterpillars chew holes in the leaves of their host plants, so treating them with pesticides would be counterproductive to maintaining butterfly populations.
  6. Wash away pests. Often aphids and other pest problems can be controlled simply by hosing them down. It may take a few showers to keep them from coming back, but it’s safer than using pesticides.
  7. Look for alternatives. Scale insects can be dabbed with rubbing alcohol, slugs can be caught with traps, and worms can be pulled out by hand. When there is an alternative to using pesticides, use it.
  8. Limit the chances of a monarch butterfly coming into contact with pesticides. There are a number of pesticide use tactics that can help limit the chances of a monarch butterfly actually coming into contact with them – treat only affected plants, spray pesticides when they will do the least damage, remove the flowers of plants treated with pesticides and choose pesticides carefully.

For more information on limiting the use of pesticides in your garden, read How to control garden pests without harming pollinators.

Helping monarchs during migration

Nectar plants can make a huge difference to monarch butterflies as they migrate from the northern United States and Canada to Mexico. The journey is long, and monarchs try to make the most of the trip by gliding on favorable winds, so they don’t have to burn off their fat stores. However, when the weather is less than ideal, they are forced to stop to rest and feed.

Monarch butterflies with adequate fat stores are able to survive the winter in Mexico, and they are also better able to reproduce the following spring.

Readily available sources of nectar can provide plenty of resting places where monarch butterflies can stop to replenish their fat stores during migration. Adding native plants to your landscape that will provide a steady supply of nectar from early spring to late fall can help ensure a successful migration for monarch butterflies and contribute to the survival of the species.

Consider planting combinations of the following varieties:

Perennials

Shrubs

vines

For more information on helping monarch butterflies on their annual migration, read How to Help Monarch Butterflies Survive Migration.

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