We can all use a bit more magic in our life: something like the warm appreciation of watching a butterfly flying through a garden, or the giddiness of catching a real-life, very hungry caterpillar munching his way through milkweed.
If you’re anything like me, these moments fill you with contentment and wonder. It’s with this sense that I set out to learn more about how to raise monarch butterflies. The species population is rapidly decreasing and in need of people willing to help. The Department of U.S. Fish and Wildlife warned in 2014 that the number of monarchs had dropped from 1 billion to 33 million. Monarchs are beautiful, and they also help the planet: while feeding on nectar, they pollinate many types of wildflowers.
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Monarch populations are in danger
The main cause of decreasing monarch numbers is habitat loss, whether that’s in the Midwest or Mexico. When temperatures start to drop around October, Monarchs migrate over 3,000 miles to the Oyamel Fir Forest in Mexico or to eucalyptus trees in Pacific Grove, California (less popular) to ‘overwinter’.' What’s more awing is that each season, four or five generations of monarchs are born. "The final generation is physiologically different than earlier generations,” says Rhonda Fleming Hayes, author of Pollinator Friendly Gardening: Gardening For Bees, Butterflies and Other Pollinators.
Daylight and an internal compass trigger this migration, causing them to land in the same protective trees every year. Sadly, their safe habitats are decreasing due to illegal logging of monarch-friendly trees, and increasingly common large storms which destroy these safe environments. The butterflies that survive migrate north where another hurdle awaits them. Monarchs exclusively lay eggs, breed, and mature on milkweed plants, which happen to grow in abundance in Midwestern agricultural areas, and is also poisonous to other insects—which is why monarchs are marked with bright colors as a warning.) But, because conventional farming increasingly uses more pesticides (in part to keep up with the demand of Monsanto GMO “round-up ready” corn and soybean crops), it damages milkweed supply.
The use of herbicides along highways and power lines, and even just mowing these areas, has also killed off a large chunk of their habitat. “If managed appropriately, roadsides could provide millions of acres of habitat suitable for monarchs and other pollinators,” explain the experts at the Monarch Joint Venture.