“Where are they?” I’m hearing it from Monarch butterfly enthusiasts as far south as Savage, MN, and as far north as St. Croix Falls, WI. The milkweed on which the Monarchs will lay their eggs is nearly knee-high in my yard, and “me” high in other places (I’m 4’11”, so it’s admittedly a low bar). I looked back into my photo files to see that I found our first egg on June 13, 2015, so perhaps there’s no reason to panic. Still, we all worry until they get here, just like anxious parents waiting for college students on summer break.
The milkweed crib awaiting babies.
Monarch butterflies have been a passion of mine for at least 17 years. Longer, if you count my childhood attempts to hatch them in a jar filled with grass. I fear I will pay a karmic price for the caterpillars who died in my captivity; I’m trying to avoid that by teaching everyone I meet about the wonders of the Monarch butterfly life cycle.
This is a Monarch egg. They usually lay them on the underside of the leaf, but this mom was in a hurry.A milkweed plant can sustain one or two caterpillars for their life cycle, but as they get bigger and really hungry, they will crawl far afield to find another milkweed plant if the one they are on gets too crowded.After all the eating, the caterpillar climbs to a high spot, forms its body into a “J” shape and waits for an inner signal that tells it to shed its skin one last time and make a chrysalis. In this picture, you can see the pattern of the wings inside. The chrysalis appears green through much of the metamorphosis, but in the last few days, as it turns black, you realize that the shell is actually clear, and the green color was the caterpillar recreating itself.
After a few hours of drying and flexing, the butterfly will be ready to fly.
The food the larvae eat (milkweed, or Asclepias) has become limited due to herbicides and the neonicotinoid insecticides, as well as habitat loss that comes with more development. Home and business owners in those developments should understand the value of creating a pollinator garden area. There are a wide variety of attractive milkweed plants suitable for the garden, and they add the entertainment value of becoming a butterfly nursery! Planting a garden with an eye to helping pollinators (bees, moths, and butterflies), is a great way to help our ecosystem AND enjoy a lovely landscape. Pollinators favor nectar-bearing plants such as Cone flowers, Zinnias, Buddleia, Asters, Joe Pye, Bee Balm, Liatris ligulistylis, among others; lovely plants to add to the garden, and most of them are perennials, saving work, time and money.
In the spring of 2015, President Obama unveiled a plan to create a 1,500 mile flyway along Interstate 35 for migrating Monarch butterflies and to help other pollinators, such as bees. States on the flyway will be able to work with federal agencies to restore prairie plants along the highway for feeding and will also be able to provide spring and summer breeding habitats. The Pollinator Health Task Force hopes the population of Monarch butterflies will increase from 56.5 million to 225 million by 2020.
The butterflies may have to be issued special visas so that they can cross the border from their wintering grounds in Mexico and cross again into Canada, but they will be able to avoid the toll booths along the route (it’s just as well, they travel too light to carry much change).
If you wish to lend some of your garden area, or you know of a school or business that would like to help keep bee and butterfly populations strong and healthy, visit the Pollinator Project for more information: