How to help monarch butterflies

Monarch butterflies were in the headlines in the summer of 2022 after they were officially listed as an endangered species.

Though their population has been on a steady decline in recent decades, this move caught much of the general public off-guard. But a look at the numbers shows that monarch numbers have decreased more than 80 percent in the last 30 years.

Such a drastic decline in a relatively short period of time is always a concern with any species. But this particular instance is especially troubling because monarch butterflies are pollinators that help make up the foundation of our ecosystems. The demise of monarchs has the potential to impact all living things in Wisconsin in some way, shape, or form.

There are many factors at play in this preventable predicament. The use of pesticides and herbicides along with climate change and deforestation are the primary forces driving this negative change.

So what can the average person do to make a difference in this problematic scenario? Let’s take a look.

To understand how to assist these beautiful creatures, we first must understand them at a basic level.

Monarch butterflies are migratory. They travel thousands of miles each year from their summer homes in the upper reaches of the United States and southern Canada down to their wintering grounds in central Mexico.

The monarchs in our state are here to breed and produce viable offspring. This makes habitat essential.

According to the Wisconsin Monarch Collective, “Creating habitat is the most important action you can take to support monarchs. No matter how much space you have, from a tiny balcony garden to hundreds of acres, you can create habitat for monarchs.”

The best place to start with habitat is by not destroying what you already have. This means using pesticides and herbicides sparingly, if at all, and being conscious about mowing in the summer months.

Not only does mowing harm plants, it can also be a direct cause of death for butterfly eggs and caterpillars.

Taking care to not disturb native plants when out and about in nature can also go a long way.

If you’d like to build additional habitat, milkweed is a great way to do so. Milkweed not only gives monarchs a place to lay their eggs, it is also the sole source of nutrients for their caterpillars. Monarch survival is 100 percent dependent upon milkweed.

Thankfully, there are 12 species of milkweed native to Wisconsin that thrive in our type of climate.

When starting milkweed from seed, plant it in November or December, before the ground is covered by snow. This extended cold period along with the moisture from the melting snow will actually help the seeds germinate in spring.

Before you plant, make sure you are using seeds from a native species and ensure they are placed in a location that gets consistent sunlight.

The next step is ensuring you plant enough milkweed. If you plant enough to attract butterflies, but not an adequate amount to feed their caterpillars, you aren’t doing any favors.

The general rule of thumb is to plant in groups of six or more. If starting from seed, sow the seeds a quarter- to a half-inch apart before covering with a quarter-inch of soil.

If you choose to go the seedling route, try to situate the plants six to 24 inches apart, depending on the species you are dealing with.

Another plan of action, come springtime, is to introduce nectar plants. There are many varieties that will not only add some beauty to your yard, but help butterflies in the process. These include several types of coneflowers and asters.

Make no mistake, our current reckoning with declining monarch butterfly populations is self-inflicted. But we can attempt to correct our collective wrongdoings through joint action.

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