Monarchs, to many a sign of summer, are an endangered pollinator. Since the 1980s, researchers and citizen scientists estimate the monarch US migration population has declined 80% to 90%. Primary causes are pesticides (especially herbicide resistant seeds like RoundupTM Ready Crops), degraded habitat, climate change, logging, and land development. In the central US, monarch migration generally follows US I-35. This area is designated the “Monarch Highway” to promote development of habitat for monarchs and other pollinators. While not close to I-35, the FUMC prairie is certified and registered as a monarch waystation for its supportive monarch habitat. Milkweed is key to monarch habitat.
Why is milkweed so important? Monarchs lay their eggs on only one type of plant, milkweeds, because monarch caterpillars eat only milkweed. Monarchs and milkweeds co-evolved. There are six milkweed regions in the US. Minnesota is in the Northeast Milkweed Region where milkweed grows in woods, marshes, prairies, and well drained soils. MN native milkweed species are Common Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, Butterfly Weed, Whorled Milkweed, and Poke Milkweed. Without milkweeds, monarchs will not survive.
Monarchs are not the only insect that feed on milkweeds. Bees, moths, butterflies and beetles feed on milkweed nectar. The milkweed bug and caterpillars of the Queen butterfly eat parts of the milkweed plant. Predatory insects also look for their next meal on milkweed plants.
Other uses of milkweed. While milkweed can be toxic if consumed in large quantities for humans and animals (horses, cows, or sheep), it was used medicinally by Native Americans. They taught European settlers how to prepare milkweed without being poisoned. Some people still prepare milkweed to eat or for home medicinal uses, but special care must be taken! An interesting fact is that during WWII the seeds from milkweed pods were used as stuffing in life preservers. Because it would take 3 years to grow milkweed commercially, school children gathered wild milkweed pods to dry as their contribution to the war effort.
Can we do anything to help reverse monarch decline? You can grow milkweed in your home garden as part of a butterfly garden or to attract pollinators to your yard. Butterfly weed is an attractive native milkweed for a garden bed. You can let self-seeding common milkweed grow in a bed or lawn, creating a small habitat for monarchs and other pollinators (and birds looking for a meal). The FUMC prairie grows common milkweed, butterfly weed, and swamp milkweed.
More than growing milkweed. This year at FUMC we have become citizen scientists in the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project. Since the 1990s, University of Minnesota researchers and citizen scientists have collected data on monarch larvae and habitat. Carl Bublitz and Marlene Haider monitor monarch life stages on over 100 milkweed plants around the stormwater pond west of the United Methodist Men’s shed. On the Monitoring Project’s website, they report weekly their observations of monarch eggs, larvae, and chrysalis for each milkweed plant. Combined with data from other Minnesota citizen scientists, we help create are more complete scientific picture of Minnesota’s monarch population.
Working to reverse decline of the monarch population is one way to be stewards of God’s creation. When our actions are based upon sound scientific understanding of God’s creation, we become better stewards in our home gardens, on the FUMC prairie, and our community.