How to help endangered monarch butterflies

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monarch butterflies feeding on milkweed

Last week the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the leading global authority on the status of biological diversity, declared monarch butterflies endangered. 

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

The monarch butterfly’s struggle to survive is the result of habitat destruction, increased pesticide use 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 start in your community gardens, local parks, backyards, grasslands and agricultural fields. There’s a way for all of us to do our part, no matter how big or small.

Create a butterfly garden

Butterfly gardens are composed of a combination of host and nectar plants that provide food for both the adult and larval stages of butterflies.

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

  • Butterfly weed
  • Clasping-leaved Milkweed
  • Common Milkweed
  • Green Milkweed
  • Green-flowered Milkweed
  • Honey-vine
  • Poke Milkweed
  • Purple Milkweed
  • Spider Milkweed
  • Sullivant’s Milkweed
  • Swamp Milkweed
  • White Milkweed
  • Whorled Milkweed

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

It’s important to plant native milkweed varieties rather than tropical varieties because tropical varieties remain green throughout the year and can convince them not to migrate for the winter.

Milkweed plants grow easily from seed when they are sown in the fall. However, they take a couple of years to bloom, so you’ll need to have patience when attempting to establish a milkweed stand.

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

In addition to plenty of 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 monarch butterflies prefer include:

  • Ashy Sunflower
  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Dense Blazing-Star
  • New England Aster
  • Ohio Goldenrod
  • Ox-eye Sunflower
  • Prairie-dock
  • Purple Coneflower
  • Rattlesnake-Master
  • Shale-Barren Aster
  • Smooth Aster
  • Spotted Joe-Pye
  • Stiff Goldenrod
  • Tall Ironweed
  • Narrow Leaved Mountain Mint

Nectar-producing native wildflowers should be planted in clusters to attract monarch butterflies because it’s easier for them to notice large groups of flowers. They are also attracted to flat-topped flowers that provide a landing platform such as the sunflower or aster.

You can enhance your butterfly garden by planting it in full sun, providing wind protection, wet spots and puddles and placing rotten fruit or stale beer out to attract more butterflies.

Learn more about establishing a butterfly garden and choosing both nectar and host plants by reading How to create a butterfly garden. Additionally, find complete lists of both host and nectar plants for a variety of butterfly species here.

Limit pesticide use

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

  1. Leave milkweed alone. Regardless of what strategies you use to control pests in your garden, milkweed should be left alone. It is monarch butterflies’ only host plant 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 backyard. They naturally require less maintenance.
  3. Space plants out. When plants are spaced according to their mature size and gardens are not overcrowded, it limits a pest’s ability to spread throughout the garden.
  4. Don’t bring pests home. Before bringing any plants home from the nursery, inspect them thoroughly to make sure you won’t be introducing any pests.
  5. Live with some pest presence. A certain 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 conserving butterfly populations.
  6. Wash away pests. A lot of times, aphids and other pest problems can be controlled simply by washing them away with the hose. It may take a couple of showers to prevent them from returning, but it’s safer than using pesticides.
  7. Look for alternatives. Scale insects can be dabbed away with rubbing alcohol, slugs can be caught with traps and worms can be plucked off by hand. When there’s an alternative to using pesticides, use it.
  8. Limit the odds of a monarch butterfly coming into contact with pesticides. There are a number of tactics for using pesticides that can help limit the odds of a monarch actually coming into contact with them — only treat affected plants, spray pesticides when they’ll do the least damage, remove flowers from plants treated with pesticides and choose pesticides carefully.

For more information on limiting pesticide use in your home garden, read How to control garden pests without harming pollinators.

Help monarchs during migration

Nectar plants can make a huge difference to monarch butterflies during their migration from the northern United States and Canada to Mexico. The journey is long and monarchs try to make most of the trip soaring on favorable winds, so they don’t have to burn through their fat reserves. However, when the weather isn’t ideal, they are forced to stop to rest and feed.

Monarch butterflies with adequate fat reserves are able to survive winter in Mexico, and they are also more reproductively fit the following spring.

Readily-available nectar sources can ensure plenty of resting points where monarch butterflies can stop to replenish their fat reserves 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 aiding monarch butterflies during their annual migration, read How to help Monarch butterflies survive migration.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Read your article and appreciate your passion for monarchs. However, take some time to review reaearch from the Landis Lab at MSU before making statements such as leave milkweed along. This is a farm publication and advice should be reflective of best practices for landowners. Miss information results in conflicts between farmers and neighbors who believe milkweed should not be mown

    • Brian, I understand what you are saying. There are ways for agriculture and conservation to exist in the same space and there are plenty of farmers who are finding ways to utilize their land and adjust their management practices to accommodate both. Modern Farmer actually just published an awesome feature story on exactly this in the context of the declining monarch butterfly populations. You should check it out — https://modernfarmer.com/2022/08/farmers-milkweed-monarch-butterflies/

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