Monarch butterflies are now endangered - what can we do to help?
Recently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the migratory monarch butterfly to be endangered, meaning that the species is now considered to have a very high risk of extinction in the wild.
Over recent years, pesticides, urbanization, and climate change have worked to decrease the number of monarchs and other pollinators, but gardens like the ones at Wellfield Botanic Gardens in Elkhart can help all kinds of pollinator populations.
Of these, climate change has been found to be the biggest factor in the declining monarch butterfly population. It all goes back to milkweed, a plant that is crucial to a monarch butterfly's lifecycle.
Although monarchs are small creatures, they migrate thousands of miles each year during the late summer from places like Michiana all the way to Mexico where they can stay warm for the winter months. At the end of winter, the monarch butterflies fly back north to follow the blooming milkweed. In order to make this journey, they need enough fuel to get there.
Adult monarch butterflies are very light - so light that you would need 10 of them to outweigh a regular piece of paper. So how do such small and delicate creatures fly so far to outrun the cold of winter?
Each year, monarchs are born in generations. The first 3 generations of any given year don't live very long, only a couple of weeks, but the 4th and last generation lives much longer, long enough to fly south at the end of the summer.
Unfortunately, climate changes and urbanization has led to habitat loss, meaning that monarchs don't have as many places to fuel up or lay their eggs on their way south.
Since monarch caterpillars eat a diet of only milkweed, adult monarchs can only lay eggs on the milkweed plants to give the eggs a chance at survival.
Although monarchs need it to survive, milkweed contains a chemical called galitoxin that is toxic to many species, so it is often removed from people's gardens. Too much removal of milkweed plants causes habitat loss and fragmentation, where even if there is a little bit of milkweed in an area, not enough can be problematic for the survival of the species.
While we don't have exact numbers, it's estimated that only 2-10% of monarch butterfly eggs become fully grown butterflies. This makes it very important that monarchs have access to plenty of milkweed for their species to survive.
Although climate change poses the greatest threat to monarch butterflies, there are still ways each of us can help.
Planting gardens with pollinators in mind is one of the many ways we can help to promote an environment that butterflies can thrive in. Not only does a flower-filled garden bring bright colors and floral smells to your garden, but it also gives a home to different pollinators such as beetles, honey bees, and of course, butterflies.
When picking plants for your garden, making sure to have a wide variety of native plants can bring in more pollinators, which in turn will promote a healthy garden as well.