Farm Horizons, April 2015

Saving the monarchs: Local preservation efforts help a struggling species

By Starrla Cray

A kaleidoscope of monarch butterflies flutters weightlessly into Linsey Lucas’ backyard in Glencoe, sipping nectar from her Blazing Star flowers.

Although these dazzling orange creatures are a common sight for Lucas during the summer months, their numbers aren’t what they once were.

The National Geographic states that in the past 20 years, the monarch population has fallen from 1 billion to about 30 million.

Habitat destruction is cited as the primary reason, with weed eradication efforts and prairie loss drastically reducing the number of milkweed plants, which are monarch caterpillars’ food source. Several monarch enthusiasts are working to keep this species thriving, however, including Gordon Houk of Lester Prairie.

“I always keep some milkweed in my garden for them,” Houk noted. “I cut off the pods before the seeds mature. I used to collect them to use in biology class at school. It got harder as time went by to find them.”

Growing up, Jessica Artibee recalls learning a lot from monarch butterflies.

“We had milkweed galore down the road by our house,” she noted. “I would check quite often to find the caterpillars. Then, I would take them and put them in a jar with milkweed and twigs, then cover with nylons and then the jar ring to hold it on.”

Artibee noted that using nylon allows the caterpillar to breathe, and it gives them a place to attach their cocoons.

“I got really good at spotting when the cocoons were about to open,” she noted. “You can see the wings through the casing.”

After the butterflies emerged, Artibee would release them in an area with milkweed plants, so that they would have a place to lay their own eggs.

“To this day, I still find myself checking under milkweed leaves when I pass a plant,” she said. “Out of all butterflies, the monarch is most precious to me.”

Typically, the survival rate for monarchs in captivity is much higher than those in the wild. The vast majority of eggs are consumed by other animals.

Preserving habitat

Another way to preserve the population is through prairie restoration and the creation of pollinator habitat.

Julie Reberg, Wright County’s district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), works with rural landowners to help them get started in conservation programs. Although none of the people she’s worked with have asked specifically about monarch habitat, many of the plants monarchs enjoy enjoy can be found in pollinator and prairie plantings.

Landowners can also choose to create habitat on their own. Tim “Red” Kirkman, for example, began adding plants to attract monarch butterflies to his farm north of New Germany in 2014.

“Last year, we planted 100 flowers, and this year we’re planting 300 more,” he said, naming Prairie Milkweed, Rose Milkweed, and Butterfly Weed as a few of the selections.

“We have about two acres of grassland that has quite a bit of milkweed growing naturally,” he added. “I know the state population was down last year, but we still saw quite a few monarchs.”

Linsey Lucas said she saw more monarchs in her garden last year than ever.

“It was not uncommon to see anywhere from 30 to 60,” she said, explaining that they’d usually flutter in around 9 a.m. to bask in the sun and enjoy nectar from her flowers. Each evening around 5 or 6 p.m., they’d disappear to rest in the trees.

Tracking migration

According to the Defenders of Wildlife website, monarchs can’t fly if their body temperature falls below 86 degrees F.

Monarchs born in the fall migrate to warmer climates to survive the winter. In the spring, they fly north thousands of miles to lay their eggs.

Lucas enjoys tracking monarchs’ flight to help determine the pathways taken by migrating monarchs, the influence of weather on migration, and monarch survival rate.

“On MonarchWatch.org, they actually have where you can order these little stickers,” she said. “Each sticker has its own number, and you put it on the monarch’s wing.”

The tiny tags are carefully placed on discal cell (the underside of the monarch’s hind wing), and are designed not to impede flight.

In addition to tracking, Lucas also enjoys raising monarch caterpillars, and breeding them after they emerge from the chrysalis.

“I put them in a fairly big enclosure with fresh milkweed and flowers,” she said. Two to three males are included, along with three to five females.

Males can be distinguished by the black spot (which is a scent gland to attract females) at the center of their hind wings. Males also typically have thinner black veins.

Holasek Flower Power Garden Center in Lester Prairie is working to protect monarchs, as well.

“We have a certified monarch butterfly preserve,” Tonia Sikorski said. “This will be our third year.”

The garden includes a variety of plants that butterflies enjoy, as well as two butterfly houses.

MonarchWatch.org has detailed information on how to create butterfly habitat, according to Sikorski.

The website also includes information about a preservation program for schools and non-profit organizations, funded through the Natural Resources Defense Council. Those interested can fill out an application on the site to receive 32 free milkweed plugs, as well as guidance for creating or enhancing a butterfly garden.

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