Monday, June 10, 2013

You Don't Need to Do it All

You don’t need to do it all.

You might have heard that the monarch butterflies are in trouble. According to recent books and articles, the only sustaining food source for monarch caterpillars - milkweed - shrank 58% in the Midwest as agriculture adopted genetically-modified (GMO) crops that tolerate mass spraying of herbicides across millions of acres.

As a result, from 1999-2010, monarch egg production dropped by 81% in the Midwest. Monarchs migrate hundreds of miles to sites in the Midwest where there is no longer any milkweed at all. It’s happening here too.

In addition, millions of acres of weed-free lawns eliminate areas for milkweed to grow. Where milkweed does grow and begin to flower in medians along highways and attract monarchs to lay eggs, the overly tidy highway department mowers and herbicide sprayers descend destroying any accidental habitat for creatures others than us. We know what it does to monarchs – the rest of the damage to pollinators is largely unknown.

The monarch evolved to be able to digest milkweed, a plant that defends itself with a toxic sap, over eons. We know that eating other kinds of plants cannot make up the absence of milkweed because the caterpillars simply cannot eat other stuff.

Butterfly bush is a favorite for many home gardens but not one butterfly will lay its eggs on the bush since no caterpillars (on their way to become butterflies) can eat the leaves. It’s value is limited to being a nectar source for adults.

The only chance for monarch survival is the home gardener. Planting and growing (and perhaps tolerating) common milkweed (Asclepias syriacus), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and perennial butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in multiples, creating a good-sized patch the butterflies can find in the huge mass of inhospitable landscape and lawn, will help. I even plant the tropical milkweed in a big pot so I can watch them closely – just remember to cut it down in late October so they will migrate south before cold weather.

If you are successful, they will eat the leaves of the plant. It might look a little tatty and that’s good. You can watch your success in helping them! Might even interest your kids.

Local groups like The Nature Generation and Loudoun Wildlife, as well as the national organizations Wild Ones and Xerxes Society, are working hard to help save the monarch as are many others. Take a moment to learn about the monarch migration and preferred hosts, about growing useful nectar plants for the adults, and how you can take a small step to have a big impact. And while you are at it, tell your friends so they can help too. (

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