National “Start Seeing Monarchs Day” is celebrated every year on the first Saturday in May. In 2023, May 6th is a day to educate and celebrate the Monarch Butterfly.
The Monarch was adopted as the Texas state insect in 1995, for its beauty and spectacular migration patterns. Texas is an important state for Monarch migration because of its location on this arduous journey. Texas is situated between the Monarch’s breeding grounds in the northern US and Mexico, where they spend the winter.
Here in Texas, we see monarchs on the flyway in the fall and the spring, but they are not the same individuals. To put it into perspective, a flight from Canada to Mexico would take people 8 hours; for the monarch that flight takes 2 months to complete. Monarchs have managed for millennia to navigate their way across the continent, drawn by an unseen force to migrate en masse. Nearly 500,00 monarch butterflies will undertake this journey every year – the longest repeat migration in the insect world.
Unfortunately, since the 1990s the population of Monarchs has declined by more than 85%, landing them on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list of threatened species. The number one reason – habitat loss. Breeding grounds throughout the US and Canada have been lost to urbanization, shrinking their habitat by 20% to 70% in the past decade. The situation is just as dire in their overwintering grounds, where deforestation to make space for urban development has destroyed vital areas of shelter. Throughout the monarch’s extensive range, pesticides and herbicides have killed butterflies and their host plant, milkweed.
Protecting the monarch isn’t just about conserving a species, it’s about conserving a unique migratory phenomenon and ourselves. The term “butterfly effect” refers to the notion that small actions can have larger effects. Even the smallest changes to your yard can help preserve this threatened species. Here are some ways that YOU can help save the monarch.
1. Plant native milkweed
Population decline for the monarch is inextricably linked to a decline in milkweed, the monarch’s only host plant. If monarchs don’t have milkweed they can’t complete their life cycle, forcing populations to plummet. Fortunately, there are over 100 species of milkweed in the US and over 30 species native to Texas. Some species native to our area include Antelope Horns (Asclepias asperula), Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridis), Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). Planting native milkweed is the best option to help the monarch as it is adapted to our climate. By going dormant in the winter, it preserves the natural cycle for monarch migration.
One species to avoid is tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), which is native to Mexico. While this species has risen in popularity to fill demand for milkweed, the downfall of tropical milkweed is that due to its hardiness, it doesn’t readily die back in the winter. This can confuse monarchs, signaling they have reached their destination and don’t continue to migrate to Mexico for winter. This becomes problematic if we have a hard freeze because the monarch and its caterpillars won’t survive the winter.
The other issue with tropical milkweed is Ophryocytis elektroscirrha (OE) which is a parasite whose primary host is the monarch. If tropical milkweed is not cut back in the winter, monarchs infected with OE can leave behind spores of the parasite on the plant. Then concentrations of OE can build, infecting monarchs that subsequently visit the plant. For these reasons, the Xerces Society has named tropical milkweed a “no-grow” species. The best way to support monarchs is to find native milkweed species to plant in your landscape.
2. Plant native plants
While monarchs will need milkweed to lay their eggs on, during migration, they require an abundance of nectar plants to provide energy for adults as they continue their journey. While picking up your milkweed, be sure to add native nectar plants into your landscape design too. Loss of nectar-rich habitats and widespread insecticide use are also contributing to the decline of the monarch. Adult monarchs depend on diverse nectar sources for food and energy through all seasons of the year. Be sure to have a range of bloom times to ensure native nectar plants a providing a 3-season buffet for visiting monarchs.
3. Avoid using pesticides
Broad-spectrum insecticides and herbicides harm not only target pests, but pollinators and other beneficial insects as well. Systemic pesticides are particularly toxic as plants absorb these chemicals, toxifying their leaves and nectar which will poison visiting pollinators. If using pesticides is unavoidable for your landscape, choose the least toxic option that targets the specific problem pest and follow the label to put out no more than the recommended rate. To avoid unnecessary exposure to pollinators, avoid spraying plants in bloom, apply pesticides in the evening or at night when pollinators are not actively foraging, and don’t apply on windy days to minimize drift.
There are many alternatives to chemical pest control that can be just as effective in your landscape without harming these beneficial pollinators. Many insects are the “good guys” providing biological pest control for free! Find out how to encourage them in your own yard to reap the rewards of lady beetles, lacewings, spiders and more. Even the U.S Capital Grounds are maintained through the addition of beneficial insects to fight pests like scale. Learn to recognize these garden heroes and help prevent pests by designing your garden to work with nature.
By planting native milkweeds, a variety of nectar plants, and avoiding the use of pesticides, you can join the growing movement of those making small changes to protect migrating monarchs and the local ecosystem. Like Doug Tallamy, author of Nature’s Best Hope has stated: “Chances are you never thought of your garden–indeed, all of your property–as a wildlife preserve that presents the last chance we have for sustaining plants and animals that were once common throughout the U.S. But that is exactly the role our suburban landscapes are playing.”
For great resources on how to create a pollinator garden, visit the Plant for Pollinators page or email email@example.com