Monarchs on the move

October 3, 2014
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In recent years, a combination of food and habitat loss has resulted in a 90% drop in Monarch butterfly populations.  Guest blogger Ann English shows how you can help revive these dwindling populations by providing a much needed food source for their journey through the Mid-Atlantic area!

A Long Journey

I have had a lifelong love of Monarch butterflies, whether in the cool striped caterpillar form, the jeweled chrysalis form or in the entrancing flying orange, black and white butterfly form.  Their movements and story fascinate me. Every year, I wonder how this creature figures out its flight path from the northern reach of its range in Canada and back to its Southern winter home in Mexico over the span of multiple generations in one migration. It is an inspirational voyage when I watch their track every year.

 

Monarch caterpillar

Monarch caterpillars are easily distinguishable with their beautiful bright stripes.

 

The beginning of fall is when they start to fly South and since I did not find many caterpillars this summer and saw very few monarchs I was anticipating not seeing any this fall.  But, I was delighted to see one on the New England Aster this past weekend and to have gotten many reports of caterpillar and butterfly sitings in the County maintained bioretention facilities that have large patches of milkweed. The one I saw was fueling up and getting ready to fly south.  As it turns out,  according to the Monarch Watch site,  the main migration for the East Coast is right now and flying over the mid-Atlantic in the first weeks of October.

 

Monarch chrysallis

The monarch inside this chrysalis is only a couple of days away from emerging as a butterfly.

 

Declining Populations

Monarch caterpillars are like picky-eater kids and only eat one kind of plant: milkweed. Unfortunately, there is a lot less milkweed in farm fields, which has been a traditional place for milkweed to grow. There has also been a loss of roosting habitat for the butterflies as the pines that they overwinter on have been cut down.  Loss of food and habitat over the past few years may be why there has been up to a 90% drop in the Monarch population, according to estimates by the tracking groups.

 

Monarch on Flower

The monarch’s signature orange and black colors.

How You Can Help

Monarchs must have larval food to survive!  This means that using milkweed in garden designs is providing not only beauty, it providing important food and cover for the monarch. Rain Gardens and Conservation Landscapes are two types of gardens that regularly use milkweed as one of the plant choices.  These gardens are designed to reduce runoff from storm water but have the added benefit of providing needed food for the larval stage and nectar for the butterflies that emerge.

Of course, to have these plants ready for the return of the Monarchs in the Spring, it is best to plan now to plant seeds or plants in your garden.  If you want to increase the chances that you will have them next year, plan for a patch of milkweed that is big enough to stand out to fluttering beauties.  Planting a Rainscapes conservation landscape or rain garden using milkweed as one of the plants is one way you can help the Monarch and help yourself at the same time.

 

Additional Resources

For more information on butterflies in general and Monarchs, check out these resources:

 

Milkweed

Milkweed, the monarchs’ food of choice!

 

By Ann English, RainScapes Program Manager, Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection



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