Monarch Butterflies: Beleaguered Friends

monarchs1Spring is for tidying and trying out new ideas.

This spring I’m bent on turning the back yard into a pollinator’s paradise and bird sanctuary. In particular, I want to get it certified as a waystation for my beleaguered garden companion, the monarch butterfly.

Butterflies, like so many of nature’s creatures, are facing tough times. Unless you and I get involved, these tiger emissaries of beauty won’t be with us much longer.

There are, however, simple things homeowners can do; but first, a few things about the monarch you may not know:

They are a dying species. According to the the Department of Ecology at the University of Iowa, their numbers have declined a startling 81% in the Midwest since 1999.

Their demise has come about largely due to the increasing scarcity of the common milkweed and its several varieties. Development and herbicides have taken a huge toll.

Monarch butterflies use no other source for laying their eggs and feeding their larvae.  Here I am reminded of Rachel Carson’s observation how “in nature, nothing stands alone.”

Each year, however, milkweed increasingly gets bulldozed, poisoned, or pulled. In suburbia, the monarch’s last great hope, millions of us obliterate them every weekend with our mowers and weed eater arsenals fresh from Lowe’s and Home Depot.

Farmers haven’t been much help either in their embrace of GMO soybean and corn production and consequent use of toxic herbicides like glyphosate (a probable cancer carcinogen in most processed foods).

I can’t say I haven’t cut down milkweed myself, seeing I didn’t even know what it looked like until recently.


But knowing now the plight of the monarch, I aim to make up for my misdeeds against these aerial delights and daily garden companions.

Monarchs are amazing. These diminutive creatures fly 3000 miles, traveling on thermals at a speed of 12-25 mph, from southern Canada and the eastern U. S. every August through September to overwinter in Mexico, returning in spring to produce a new generation.

They don’t have lungs, breathing instead through tiny vents in the thorax, or abdomen, called spiracles.

Monarchs can perceive colors and assess habitat. They can even detect UV lights, something humans can’t do.

This may surprise you, but monarchs store a poison, which helps protect them from predators like frogs, lizards and birds. (I’ve never ceased marveling at the wonders of evolution.)

Monarchs are unique among all animal species in their regeneration pattern. Every spring and summer, three generations, each living only two to six weeks, are born. Then comes that fourth generation in August and September.

Though biologically the same as the others, this generation is mysteriously programmed to live for some eight months, making winter migration possible. It’s this generation, the great grandchildren, who produce progeny, a miracle that continues to baffle scientists.

Now here are things you and I can do to help them out and to get more of them into our yards:

Create a waystation: This means converting a portion of your yard–doesn’t have to be large–that will provide milkweed and nectar plants for monarchs along with habitat and shelter.

You can get your waystation certified. Just go to and follow the link. In just the past two years, waystations have increased nationally from 36 to 234. In Lexington, KY, where I live, their number has gone from 36 to 60!

You will also enjoy the video available at Look for the Main Street Monarch Migration video. It’s filmed in Kentucky’s gorgeous Audubon State Park, which observes a butterfly festival each year.

Here are some recommended plants to help you create your pollinator sanctuary, via the kind auspices of Lexington photographer and gardener Betty Hall ( Many of these plants may be suited for your own locale, but try always for indigenous plants as they’ll fare best.

Be sure you include the crucial milkweed you’ll see in her listing. You’ll have to search your locale a bit, since the majority of nurseries, including the box stores, don’t carry them.

Saving the monarchs has taken an international turn. Did you know that President Obama recently discussed the issue with Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper?

The good news is that Mexico has now set aside some 62 square miles of forest in the Sierra Madres for their preservation. You’ll find it by googling Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Preserve,

I find the challenge of keeping our monarch guests around exciting and hope you will too.




















Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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