Sad news for bug lovers and anyone concerned about essential ecosystems: In July 2022, the International Union for Conservation of Nature placed migratory monarch butterflies on their Endangered Species list. The IUCN estimates that, due to habitat loss and climate change, the migratory monarch's population has been depleted "by between 22% and 72% over the past decade".
This makes it more important than ever to boost their foraging opportunities and habitat. If you create a butterfly garden geared toward monarchs, you can provide pit stops for these gorgeous gold, black, and white beauties and increase the odds that they'll make it to their wintering grounds.
Perils and potholes along the migratory monarch's journey
Some monarchs venture only as far south as Florida, Texas, or southern California, but those considered true migratory monarchs will winter in the fir forests of mountainous central Mexico. Monarchs don't reproduce during their southbound travels, but before they begin north in spring they mate, and they typically lay their eggs once they reach the United States or even Canada.
How do we know how many monarchs make it to the finish line?
The key to counting these butterflies is to visit their winter grounds in Mexico and measure the acreage populated by large monarch clusters. According to the World Wildlife Fund, approximately 45 acres were flocked by monarchs in the 1995/96 winter season; in 2020, that number had dwindled to five.
What's causing their decline?
Way back in early 2017 we posted a popular article about the ecological dangers monarchs face, many of them caused by pollution, deforestation, and the widespread use of glyphosate weed killers. (We don't even dive into the hazards of highway traffic, though we've all probably felt terrible when picking monarchs out of our grills!)
The species has become so fragile that single events such as severe storms can devastate populations. Now, just five years later, losses are so critical that the insect is officially on the brink of extinction. And every effort, great or small, can make a difference in keeping them aloft.
We're looking at you, Seed Needs gardeners!
Creating a rest stop for migrating monarchs
Unlike us, monarchs don't stock up on Funyuns and Twizzlers to fuel their journeys. While adults will happily sip from hundreds of nectar-bearing plants, monarch caterpillars live entirely on milkweed (Asclepias), of which there are more than 100 species. Northbound monarchs use milkweed plants as "delivery rooms" for their eggs. If they can't find them? Well, it's not like they can just pull over and give birth on the side of the road; No other plant will do.
Fortunately, we can dot their migration paths with backyard refuges, doing our part to counter habitat loss. We—and many conservation organizations—think it's worth the effort and makes a difference.
Is milkweed easy to grow? What about other plants?
We all know that anything even remotely regarded as a weed is maddeningly quick to take hold in our gardens, and milkweed is no different. Except for needing a bit of time in the refrigerator to stratify, milkweed seeds are easy to plant. Since they do well in poor soils, they're great for neglected areas on your property, as long as they have good drainage and full sun. Milkweed thrives as annuals anywhere in North America and grows as perennials in USDA zones 3-9.
The typical milkweed will bloom June through August, and despite the "weed" moniker, they're excellent ornamentals and make beautiful cut flowers.
Diversity is key to a healthy ecosystem, and butterfly gardens are no exception. We recommend you plant a variety of milkweed types, as well as tall, broad-leafed plants that provide cover for napping adults or those seeking shelter from bad weather, and nectar-rich flowers to fuel them up. Native wildflowers for pollinators are always the best, especially when you create a landscape that blooms throughout the monarch's migration period.
You can learn more about growing milkweed for monarch butterflies in this Seed Needs post. Do you have photos of monarchs visiting your own milkweed patch? Post them to Instagram, and tag us!
Is raising and releasing monarchs helpful?
Raising monarchs from caterpillars or eggs might be a great way to teach your kids about ecosystems and the lifecycle of butterflies, but most kits require you to populate mesh enclosures with caterpillars or eggs found in your own milkweed garden. We think it's a better idea to find someone who sells captive-bred caterpillars so that you're adding to the population, not potentially interfering with wild monarchs. Look for a supplier in your area, and take note of when they usually ship, as extreme temperatures while in transit will kill the critters.
If you raise butterflies from eggs, you'll get a caterpillar in 3-4 days, depending on their age when they're shipped. They'll remain in the caterpillar (larval) stage for about 10-14 days, eating as much milkweed as you can feed them (psst... it's a lot) before becoming pupae, hanging from the top of their enclosure. Then, after another 10-14 days, the butterflies will emerge! As soon as their wings dry, they should be released into the wild, where they'll best be able to forage on their own.
We're big fans of engaging children with nature through gardening, and raising butterflies at home is a great introduction. Encourage your kids to be part of the entire monarch-raising process, from growing milkweed for caterpillar food to releasing the adults!
More resources for supporting monarchs
Want to go the extra mile? You can learn more about monarchs and how to help them by checking out and supporting these fantastic organizations:
- The Dunwoody Nature Center Milkweed Project
- Xerces Society
- Monarch Joint Venture
- Monarch Butterfly Fund
- Monarch Watch
- The National Wildlife Federation
You can also check out your county's Agricultural Extension Office to find out if there are any programs and incentives available to help you provide essential pollinator habitats on your property, whether you own an urban lot or rural acreage.
Source your monarch garden seeds from Seed Needs
We're passionate about all butterflies, monarchs in particular. We hope you feel the same, and that you turn to us for the freshest hand-packaged pollinator-friendly seeds available. And keep our blog bookmarked! We're committed to bringing you tips and insights that will help you green up your thumb... and hitch a ride to gardening success!