Stepmother of Butterflies

Monarch butterflies are having a tough time. The population fluctuates but, generally speaking, their numbers are dangerously low. The harshness of last winter dealt a devastating blow; it is estimated that more than 15 million of this endangered species were lost. Many people recognize that the summer-winged beauties are no longer as abundant in backyards as when we were young. In fact, there seems to be fewer butterflies in general. The good news is that, if we all chip in, we can help them rebound.

Monarchs are tenacious. They doggedly make an amazing migration unlike any other butterfly, requiring multiple generations to travel to the northern United States and even southern Canada, then back again. Some overwinter in California, Mexico and the Caribbean. Then the females will determinedly fly northward, laying their eggs on milkweed plants as they travel. Each egg will hatch into very hungry caterpillars, munching nonstop on one specific plant, milkweed. Nothing else will do. One caterpillar will eat an entire plant, or about 20 leaves in two weeks. Then it will hang, head downward, from a bit of silk and shed its skin for the last time, revealing the chrysalis.  Through only two more weeks of metamorphosis, the caterpillar will change and emerge a delicate adult monarch, ready to start its journey.

With the monarch population plummeting, a surprising number of people have come to the rescue, each taking steps to create change. More and more have started to breed the butterflies for release. There are now even conventions to assist with continuing education, such as tagging, understanding diseases and predators, and giving individuals better tools for even more success. Farming monarchs has become a “thing.” The only problem is, no matter how many are released, it’s all for naught unless there is enough milkweed.

Any backyard gardener who plants a few milkweed plants has the same complaint: Robust plants are quickly stripped to the stems as these eating machines grow exponentially, consuming every available leaf. In our area, this is a year-round occurrence. Last year, I had 27 starving caterpillars on my naked milkweed plants on Valentine’s Day. Those of us who boost their populations have sources of milkweed that we guard like winning lottery tickets. We are often found racing around town trying to find plants to replenish our depleted stash. Gardening centers soon know us by name. I am relatively certain staffers refer to me as the “crazy butterfly lady.”

Monarch can lay hundreds and hundreds of eggs, and newly planted milkweed is looked upon with pride, even after the munching begins. Then reality hits. Those cute anole lizards LOVE monarch babies, as do wasps, spiders, flies, frogs, ants and more. Many helpers will discover that their growing population of caterpillars has simply disappeared. In the wild, the sad reality is that only between 1 to 3 percent survive. Please do not let that stop you from planting, because that small number is desperately needed to replenish the monarchs. To commit to the cause, you can simply plant milkweed. Or you can be like me and take it to the next level. This is when the fun starts.

Once you see the magic happen firsthand, you’re hooked. You become protective of your caterpillars and want to do something to help them survive. The solution is simple. No matter which participation level you choose, you can help boost survival: Put those babies behind a screen. You can place some potted plants in a screened-in area or mesh habitat or simply bring a few pots inside.

There are fancier tools available, of course, but if you’re a simple kinda person, hit up your local dollar store and grab a mesh hamper. Cut off the handles, turn it upside down and place it over the plant. (Note: The hamper won’t protect caterpillars from predators.) Keep switching out fresh plants or fresh leaves as the caterpillars happily and steadily get fat. Soon, the chubby yellow, white and black-striped caterpillars amble to the top of the plant and build a chrysalis which hangs from the hamper.

Then simply watch; eventually, it turns black. The next morning, a tiny butterfly will expand, stretch and grow until it’s full-sized, ready to do its part to reproduce and travel the globe. You, amazing Citizen Scientist, have just changed the world. Just by making a safe place for them to eat, you increased the survival rate from 3 percent at best to a huge 85 to 90 percent. That’s impressive. You can now join forums, Facebook groups, go to conventions, meet other passionate monarch boosters and be part of the solution, part of the family and part of the club that’s changing the world.

This is a magical, amazing process the whole family can get behind. Rebellious teens, small children, even grumpy grandpas cannot resist this miracle of nature. It’s simply … AH-mazing. However, there’s a small catch. If you aren’t planting more milkweed to give the new monarchs a place to reproduce, they won’t be able to create beautiful progeny.

Today, more and more folks release larger and larger numbers of monarchs from their homes, schools and gardens. For every butterfly released, we need to plant at least one milkweed. This is the most critically important element of bringing the species back. Nothing else will work—but it’s not too hard.

Free milkweed seeds are available from many sources; just Google and order. Get fancy: Order exotic and unusual plants, go to your local garden centers and plant waystations for migrating populations. Just plant milkweed. Plant rows of milkweed along your property line. A business can plant a waystation out front; a corporation can plant a large area and bring back wildflowers. When contractors clear-cut land for new communities, leave a section of wild growth or, better yet, clear it off and plant only milkweed throughout. Every school can plant a milkweed garden; every senior center can have a protected area. A church can take God’s green earth and plant some life-giving milkweed. A one-time planting will propagate on its own. Just let it grow.

Jacksonville is the gateway for the monarchs. Florida is the only U.S. state with a population of monarchs that don’t migrate, yet we have migratory butterflies travelling through our town on their way to the overwintering grounds in Mexico and the Caribbean. We are special. That’s why we must take advantage of our climate to keep this little butterfly going. It’s so simple. Plant milkweed.


Hudson is a resident of Jacksonville. Learn more at The Butterfly Advocate’s Facebook page.