Are Midwest farmers to blame for the monarch butterfly’s population decline?
Monarch butterflies spend most of their lives on the road, flying 3,000 miles between Mexico and Canada. In Kansas and Missouri, we encounter monarchs in the middle of their expedition, when they’re on the hunt for milkweed. Monarchs lay their eggs on the plant — the one and only source of food for baby caterpillars.
The monarch migration is beloved by nature lovers everywhere — especially in Kansas City. Starting in late July, Powell Gardens hosts the Festival of the Butterflies to celebrate the monarch’s migratory journey through the area.
Across the Midwest, the eradication of milkweed is causing drastic decreases in monarch population numbers. According to the National Wildlife Federation, monarch counts have declined 80 percent in the past 20 years. Here’s what you need to know — and how you can help.
Herbicides kill milkweed.
In the early 2000s, farmers started planting genetically modified corn and soybean plants. That allowed the farmers to aggressively spray weed-killers on fields, poisoning the monarchs and eradicating milkweeds, their only source of food.
“We need to reestablish 1.4 billion stems of milkweed,” says Orley “Chip” Taylor, University of Kansas entomologist and founder and director of Monarch Watch, a program focused on the research and conservation of monarch butterflies. “That’s at least 20 million acres of restoration if we want to keep this butterfly going.”
Climate change also plays a factor.
Colder, longer and inconsistent winters are causing butterflies to die off. Monarchs make it through temperate southern states only to be halted by too-cold-for-spring temps.
“High temperatures have an effect on butterflies because it’s going to send them too far north too soon,” Taylor says. “The temperatures drop to the 60s and kill millions and millions of monarchs.”
Create your own monarch habitat.
Growing milkweed plants in your garden can act as “pit stops” for butterflies on their migration, aiding in healthy reproduction efforts.
You can also plant flowers to entice butterflies. Monarchs are generally attracted to colorful flowers (see sidebar), says Eric Parette, horticulturist at Powell Gardens. Parette warns gardeners to be choosy about buying plants from big box stores, which are often drenched in pesticides.
“They’ll spray it with pesticides, and it’ll end up killing the caterpillars,” says Parette. “You just have to watch where it comes from because some [stores] don’t care.”
Monarch numbers are up this year, but it’s an ongoing struggle.
“The bottom line is that we are faced with the task of ‘run as fast as we can and stay in one place’ because we’re losing habitat a little bit faster than we’re restoring it,” Taylor says.
GO: Festival of Butterflies runs July 26-Aug. 11. Powell Gardens, 1609 N.W. U.S. Highway 50, Kingsville, Mo. 9 am-6 pm. $5 parking fee. powellgardens.org.
Plant these colorful blooms in your yard to help feed the butterflies
Flower spikes on this plant lure in butterflies of all kinds. Keep a hummingbird feeder next to your garden to go double duty on attracting pollinators.
This hardworking pollen machine is typically orange or yellow and grows best in full, unyielding sun.
These traditionally purple blooms come back year after year to satisfy pollinators.
The colorful favorites produce multiple bloom shapes and sizes. Snip them as cut flowers during the growing season.
These wonderful spires of purple will lasso in plenty of butterflies.
Although not a true sunflower, this monarch favorite is native to Mexico and loves the summer heat.