I'm sure I don't have to tell you that the annual migration of monarch butterflies from their northern summer homes to their tropical Mexican wintering ground has just finished working its way through Garden City. What? You missed it? Unfortunately, you aren't the only one. Years ago, no one could have missed the swarms of monarchs as they gathered on bushes to rest before continuing on their way each fall. Every year this sight becomes rarer, but it isn't too late to help this beautiful and miraculous species make a comeback. The key to a return of the monarch butterflies may even lie in your own yard.
The easiest way to evaluate the state of monarch populations is to measure the size of the area they occupy in Mexico each winter. Between 1994 and 2003, monarch butterflies occupied an average of 9.06 hectares (22.4 acres). Between 2004 and 2013 this average dropped to 3.83 hectares (9.5 acres). Scientists have identified several reasons for this dramatic decline, which run the gamut from changes in weather patterns to loss of habitat. While we can't control the weather, you can help create monarch habitat.
Monarch butterflies aren't picky eaters; almost any flowering nectar plant will provide the nourishment they need to sustain them through their long journey. The same cannot be said for their offspring, however. Monarch caterpillars eat only one type of plant: milkweed. The term milkweed refers to any of more than 100 species of plants, all of which are known for their white milk-like sap. The caterpillar's reliance on these plants isn't just a matter of taste.
Milkweed contains toxins that caterpillars ingest and incorporate into their bodies. This, in turn, makes the caterpillar and adult butterflies toxic to potential predators, thereby creating an effective defense system. Unfortunately, milkweed habitat has been disappearing in recent years. This absence of food is one large reason for the decline in monarch populations. Luckily, for those of us who are interested in lending a hand to future generations of monarchs, milkweed also can be quite beautiful with flowers that run through the rainbow from whites and yellows to reds and purples.
Creating monarch habitat is easy. Simply choose a few species of milkweed that appeal to your color sense and plant them in your garden. There are several native Kansas milkweed species, as well as non-native varieties that will thrive in our climate with minimal care. A few tropical species are popular for their bright flowers and fast growth, but these will need to be replanted each year as they cannot survive our cold winters. In order to accommodate monarchs of all life stages, be sure to add in a few more types of flowering plants that will bloom at different times of the year.
Monarchs migrate north in April/May and head south in September/October so they will need food sources that are flowering in both spring and fall. While these plants will meet the minimum requirements, a water source (shallow bird bath) and an area protected from the wind are welcome comforts for the migrating butterfly. Start planting this fall, and you are sure to have a few more visitors next spring.
If you would like more information on appropriate butterfly plants, want to purchase milkweed seed or would like to learn how you can help even more, visit www.monarchwatch.org. This Kansas University-based organization is dedicated to tracking and increasing monarch populations. They welcome help from citizen scientists (that's you) to tag monarchs and create monarch way stations (aka butterfly gardens).
If you are reading this article, you may be able to remember the days when monarchs were plentiful in this area. For today's children, those swarms of beautiful orange and black butterflies are far harder to find. If enough of us rally together to create new butterfly habitat, we can not only beautify our neighborhoods, but we may be able to give the next generation an opportunity to feel the same wonder we experienced when we were young. Until your own butterfly garden starts attracting these beautiful visitors, stop by the zoo's own butterfly garden and let us know if you spot any monarchs passing through!