The Importance of Milkweed to Monarch Butterflies

A Seed Savers Exchange packet of red milkweed seeds, a plant that is vital to the future of monarch butterflies. Photo © Tom Bland.

A Seed Savers Exchange packet of red milkweed seeds, a plant that is vital to the future of monarch butterflies. Photo © Tom Bland.

In November of 2013 we were horrified to read The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear by Jim Robbins in the New York Times – the story of the dramatic decline in the numbers of migrating monarch butterflies that travel each year from North America to spend the winter in a mountainous, forested corner of Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains. To call it dramatic is an understatement. Estimates from the nineties pegged the number of migrating monarchs to be over a billion. In 2012, 60 million butterflies were estimated to have survived the journey. In 2013 this almost halved to 35 million. Exactly how many will make it in 2014 remains to be seen but it’s looking pretty disastrous for the monarch butterfly.

Why is this happening? It’s due in large part to farming practices across the US, with (surprise surprise) our current reliance on fossil fuels lurking in the background. As Jim Robbins writes in the article linked above, ‘farming with Roundup, a herbicide that kills virtually all plants except crops that are genetically modified to survive it, has wiped out millions of acres of native plants, especially milkweed, an important source of nectar for many species, and vital for monarch butterfly larvae.

I could quote vast chunks of Jim’s article but really you just need to take a few minutes to read it yourself. Here it is again:

The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear, Nov 2013
www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/sunday-review/the-year-the-monarch-didnt-appear.html

What is so important to farmers that they need to use Roundup? Among other things, corn. A follow-up piece by Michael Wines was published in January of this year titled Migration of Monarch Butterflies Shrinks Again Under Inhospitable Conditions – it’s just as eye-opening and can be found here: www.nytimes.com/2014/01/30/us/monarch-butterflies-falter-under-extreme-weather.html

This latest piece outlines how extreme weather and climate change are also playing their part but points out how ‘corn prices have risen — spurred in part by a government mandate to add ethanol to gasoline… farmers have planted tens of millions of acres of idle land along the monarchs’ path that once provided both milkweed and nectar.‘ It reinforces the importance of restoring the milkweed which once flourished in amongst rows of corn. Where farmers are using herbicides this is no longer the case.

Hopefully by now you are wondering what can you do about this. Well here are a few ideas from us:

1. Wherever you live, plant some milkweed seeds. Whether you have a property with a garden or window boxes on an urban balcony, just take a few moments to plant some milkweed. Our seeds came from Seed Savers Exchange. This link takes you directly to the seeds: www.seedsavers.org/onlinestore/Prairie-Seeds/Prairie-Red-Milkweed.html. When the plant goes to seed, harvest as many of the seeds as possible and set them aside for spring 2015 to plant yourself or distribute to others for the same purpose. Consider milkweed borders around lawns or along the edge of driveways, or even better – turning the dead space of a lawn into a wildflower meadow would create a haven for beneficial butterflies and insects.

2. Pass this information on to anyone you know in America’s Midwest or Great Plains states and urge them to plant milkweed in their gardens. The monarch’s migratory route covers this vast expanse of land and it’s vital that monarch-friendly plants are planted quickly.

3. Educate your town or your landscapers to STOP removing milkweed, or preferably ask them to get to work on sowing milkweed instead! This plant is so important it needs to be encouraged to thrive, and towns and landscapers are a big part of the problem – they often pull it out assuming that it’s a ‘weed’ without realizing it’s a beautiful flower and the crucial role it plays.

4. Do you know of any empty plots of land where you could partake in some guerrilla milkweed planting? Milkweed likes decent sun exposure – can you think of a suitable spot in your neighborhood? Scatter some seeds!

5. Share this blog post and help to spread the word about the importance of milkweed and the plight of our butterflies, bees and insects.

We will be harvesting as many milkweed seeds as possible this year. If you would like some to plant in 2015 please get in touch.

A Seed Savers Exchange packet of red milkweed seeds, a plant that is vital to the future of monarch butterflies. Photo © Tom Bland.

A Seed Savers Exchange packet of red milkweed seeds, a plant that is vital to the future of monarch butterflies. Photo © Tom Bland.

A milkweed plant with seeds and seed pods. Photo © Diana Pappas.

A milkweed plant with seeds and seed pods. Photo © Diana Pappas.

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