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A Malabar Tree Nymph at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum's Butterfly Haven. Monarch butterflies aren't at the haven but you might find them at the museum's outside garden with milkweed. 

Plant some flowers and save the Monarch butterflies

by Elise Byun
May 13, 2014


William Warby/Flickr

Monarch butterfly in the butterfly house at Palmitos Park in Gran Canaria.

They fearlessly travel thousands of miles over several generations but it’s not the long distance flights that are threatening Monarch butterflies. It’s the habitats and food sources that loggers, farmers and maybe even you are taking away. It’s not too late to help them. How? Mow less, plant more.

“Last year was a record low for Monarchs. The lowest [population] we’ve ever seen,” said Allen Lawrance, invertebrate specialist at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

A study by the World Wildlife Fund-Telcel Alliance and the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve Office in Mexico showed Monarch butterflies occupied 44 percent less of Mexico’s forestland in 2013 than in 2012.

Monarch butterflies are famous for their unique migration pattern. They are the only butterfly species in the United States that migrate for the winter, Lawrance said.

If you were a Monarch butterfly living east of the Rocky Mountains, you would fly to Mexico to escape the cold. If you lived west of the Rocky Mountains, you’d fly to California. But Monarch habitats in the Mexico’s forests have been cut down, Lawrance said. This prevents the butterflies from surviving through the winter.

The other threat to the Monarch’s livelihood is lack of food. Monarch butterflies mainly feed on milkweed. The problem is people don’t like milkweed. “People don’t want [it] around because they view it as a weed. But it’s really an important host plant to maintain,” Lawrance said. Milkweed is a plant that is suitable for a caterpillar to eat and grow on.

Farmers don’t want milkweed growing near their crops. “They don’t want the growing energies to go to the weeds instead of the corn,” said Lesley Deem, entomologist and director of the Pollinatarium at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

If you’re against milkweed cultivation, there are other flowers and nectar sources you can cultivate to help the Monarchs. “What’s especially important is to plant flowers that bloom all year round-from the early spring to the late fall,” Lawrance said. Some perennials and good nectar sources include butterfly weed, daisy, primrose, anthemis and phlox.

If you don’t want to garden, there’s another option. Mow less often. It’s a good excuse to put off the chore and enjoy the weekend afternoon biking instead. And when you mow, “raise your mowers up a few inches off the ground so that short plants like clovers can bloom,” Lawrance said. That will provide sustenance for the Monarchs as they fly south for the winter.

Monarch butterflies only live for about four to six weeks. It takes up to three or four generations for these butterflies to migrate.

“It’s only the last generation that flies back. So it’s the great-grandkids of the butterflies that were in Mexico,” Lawrance said. Yet they know how to return. Entomologists are still studying how the insects know where to go without ever having been through the migration paths before.

It would be a shame to lose “this really unique mystery,” Lawrance said.

Deem says Monarchs are important because they are pollinators. Butterflies, along with bees, birds, bats and other pollinators allow people to enjoy a variety of fruits and vegetables. “If we don’t have our pollinators, we’re going to lose about one-third of our food supply,” Deem said.

Under the Endangered Species Acts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can only list species as “threatened” or “endangered” depending on its risk of extinction, Lawrance said. Monarchs are not officially listed as either, which means there is no funding for conservation programs.