SOS for Monarch Butterflies

An article in today’s New York Times contained alarming news about the decline of Monarch butterflies.

Monarch Butterfly

This year the butterflies are occupying less than three acres of pine forest in their Mexican winter habitat. That’s down dramatically from the seven acres occupied in 2o11 and the 50 acres that have been full of Monarchs in some past years. Some scientists believe that further decline could bring Monarch populations below the point of no return. My own unscientific observation is that there are definitely fewer Monarchs than there were a few years ago.

Monarch Butterfly
Monarch of the milkweed.

The culprit is the decline of wild milkweed (Asclepias spp.) in the American Midwest. High prices have caused farmers to maximize acreage under cultivation, plowing up strips of land that had once been full of grasses and wildflowers. Also, the prevalence of herbicide-resistant corn means that there are far fewer milkweed plants growing as weeds among the corn rows.

Monarch Butterfly

Milkweeds are the only host plant for Monarch butterfly caterpillars. No milkweed means no food for  new generations of Monarchs as they migrate from south to north and back.

We can help the Monarch butterflies by planting more milkweeds in our gardens. There are several garden-worthy species available. A post about the milkweeds I like to grow is here.

Do you have milkweed in your garden? Or do you have plans to add some during the coming year?

43 Comments on “SOS for Monarch Butterflies

  1. Oh No! what a sad story. Today only I was reading about their decline in Texas due to wild fires which also killed the milkweed. But the news about only occupying 3 acres is really heart-wrenching. I will be buying lots of milkweed this year.

    • Good for you! I may have understated the role of the drought, which also is mentioned in the article. Better weather this year may help, also.

  2. I’m definitely planning to plant more. Planted some in late summer and hope they haven’t fallen victim to the just-ended drought. Monarchs a’re so beautiful and their decline doesn’t bode well for the environment.

  3. Like Karen, I was thinking of the drought as part of the problem, too. It is truly sad, and I hope the trend can be reversed. Thanks for the warning on your blog. I don’t have any here because most of my garden is shady, but we do have lots up at the cottage.

    • If you have dappled or part shade you might want to try Purple Milkweed. As I mentioned above, the drought is part of the problem, so maybe this year will bring some improvement.

  4. Lots of milkweed here in several spreading clumps in the meadow behind the compost pile and each year the stands of them get bigger. I do nothing, they just grow and spread. But in general most of the areas that would have sprouted milkweed all over our state (CT) are under development, cleared, and otherwise subject to the habitat decline you mention.

    Your last photo looks 3-D on my screen. I have a fancy new retina display that makes all photos look great, but that picture is positively a hologram. I can even hear the butterfly’s wings flutter.

    • This really underlines the Douglas Tallamy argument: we can’t rely on preserved natural lands to save insect species, we have to plant natives in our gardens on a large scale.

  5. That is a really important issue you bring up. Thank you for this post. I especially appreciate the suggestions on the various garden worthy milkweeds. I am going to make a point of incorporating some onto my hillside.

    • I think the California Monarchs are not in as much trouble, but it is still a good idea to plant milkweeds. Not sure what kind of milkweed grows out there.

  6. Since Milkweed is not native here (and we don’t get monarch butterflies normally) I had to look up this plant in Wikipedia. Very pretty and many different sorts. If I can find some seeds I will try growing them for the pollinators. Thanks – interesting article.

  7. I also saw this article…I have milkweed around the garden and have added more this past fall…numbers were down here but that seemed to be due to the drought. Hoping for an upturn in numbers this year.

  8. I’ve never seen many Monarchs here, and I grow milkweed. They show up later in the season, after the milkweed has bloomed, and even then they are not very prevalent. We have tons of Swallowtails and Painted Ladies, but not many Monarchs. I always assumed we weren’t a major stop on their migration path, but maybe there are other factors at work.

  9. This is sad news indeed! Every year I add more milkweed. Last fall I saw a record number of monarchs in my garden that a storm blew in but overall, I observe the population being down also. Ironically, I see more milkweed growing along the roadsides in the Midwest than I do in Georgia. I think counties and road crews should be taught when to mow along roadsides. Right now they seem to do it right at the peak of bloom time.

    • The state DOT here has really improved roadside management as far as encouraging natives goes. Not sure if the same is true of other Midwest states. But you’re definitely right that a lot could be done with roadsides in terms of helping the Monarchs.

  10. Sad story. I’ve always meant to plant some milkweed on the property, I think this is the final motivating factor. I’d rather we were part of the solution than part of the problem. It would be a sad day to never see another Monarch in the garden…

  11. It’s always disheartening to read this kind of news. I have to admit I am very ignorant about butterflies, we have something similar to your Monarchs here but I guess they’re not Monarchs since we don’t have milkweed growing in Europe.
    Anyway I have a nice pot where I’m growing milkweed, just in case some american butterfly would come over for a holiday…

  12. That is not good news! I already have some milkweed but will definitely be planting more 🙂

  13. I’ve never gotten very monarchs on the West Side of Chicago, but I do get a ton of Red Admirals. The monarch count has always been low, and I’ve even added the native milkweed to attract them, but in the 7 years I’ve been keeping track through the garden blog, I’ve only spotted like 4 of them.

    • I’ve gotten more monarchs than that, sometimes three or four at a time. I did have a year when Red Admirals were all over the place, but they have not been numerous the last couple years.

  14. I saw this same article and it is very distressing. I do have milkweed although it isn’t big enough to help the butterflies much yet. I’m getting more grown-up plants from the nursery tomorrow. I have seen a few Monarchs passing through this week and I want to do all I can to help them.

    • It’s good you’re adding additional milkweeds. What kinds do you have? I guess the tropical milkweed (A. curassavica) would be hardy in your garden.

  15. When I posted a picture of Monarchs on my blog when I was on holiday In Maderia in january it was on asclepias. This milkweed is a bit dodgy over here outside . Best for a cold conservatory. In the UK milkweed is a common name for the euphorbias. The monarch on Madeira does not migrate

  16. Beautiful captures. I too have heard of this decline. It seems like there is a major decline of quite a few species everywhere in the last few years. It seems like habitat loss is a key, but in the case of the Monarch, it is pesticide use and much more. Sad for them.

  17. I definitely have plans to plant milkweed. A new area of the garden is under construction (only in my brain at this point) and I’m hoping to create a butterfly friendly zone. I had been thinking about this for a while now but recently having seen so many articles about the decline of monarchs I’m feeling like I really to get this plan off the ground.

  18. Hi Jason,
    Did you get your clean up started before leaving for your trip? I enjoyed the recent posts, and had a laugh over your care of the potted tulips. I’ve never tried that before. I hope they are OK when you get back.

    I hope more people plant milkweed, and the monarchs don’t decline much more. I am tickled that I have some common milkweed that nature planted a few years ago. I also have some other kinds planted.

  19. Butterfiles in genreal are on the decline here I think – or we might be at a turning point. There is lot of attention being focussed on plants that are good for bees (rich nectar producing flowers) and butterflies to try and reverse the trend. The result is an “obvious” labelling system on plants that are “bee-friendly” and a general awareness that plants like echinacea and buddleja are good for the butterflies and ought to be planted.

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