Earthworms’ Castings

With Jean Ponzi

Milkweeds for Monarchs

Let’s throw a lifeline to a beautiful bug!

Remember studying Monarch butterflies in grade school? We learned cool words like metamorphosis by watching a creature you couldn’t miss, with those gorgeous orange and black patterned wings – preceded by an astonishing yellow, green and black striped caterpillar – who hatched out of a luminous jewel-green golden-dotted chrysalis that turned transparent on the magic day the butterfly emerged.

We kids could experience all these wonders in our own back yard.
But what if your kids never got to see Monarch magnificence?

It could happen – shockingly soon – or you could help avoid this disaster.

The issue is that Monarch populations are declining: over 90% in the last twenty years. That means only 10% (or less) of all the Monarchs in the world still survive. That’s too close for comfort for Monarchs, for me.

The story behind the issue involves one way a species evolves. In Eco-Logical terms, Monarchs are specialists. They’ve evolved relating with one kindred kind of plant, and they must find this partner in order to carry on their kind. If a Monarch has to lay her eggs on any plant outside the Milkweed clan, her hatchling larvae will starve. Monarch caterpillars can only eat Milkweed leaves to make it to that metamorphic state.

Adult Monarchs, in their butterfly state, can thrive on nectar from various kinds of flowering plants, but they cannot reproduce on any living thing that’s not a member of the milky-sapped Asclepiadaceae family.

Monarchs and Milkweeds. It’s a natural romance. But, like Romeo and Juliet, it could have a tragic ending.

Dr. Orley R. “Chip” Taylor, a professor at KU in Lawrence, Kansas, sounded an early Monarch alarm. Trained as an insect ecologist (a bug guy), he started out studying Killer Bees, which took him in the 1970s down to Mexico. While there, he observed a supreme wonder of the natural world: how bizillions of Monarchs (the entire species!) cover the trees in a few sheltered valleys as they warmly over-winter near Michoacan – before they migrate nearly 3,000 miles north into the brief Canadian summer.

In all this world, there are no other butterflies (tiny, fragile beings!) that migrate like the Monarchs.

Chip Taylor switched to studying Monarchs. In 1992, he hatched the bright idea to engage his fellow humans, up and down the transcontinental Monarch flyway, to observe and track these monumental migrations. Thousands of “citizen scientists” joined the effort to watch for and tag this species, to learn more about them.

Back in the 1990s, when the Monarchs came through your town, people took notice. Butterflies covered your trees! Any kid in mid-America could enjoy the Monarch science lesson, while simply playing outside!

Then Dr. Taylor and his tracking troops noticed a Monarch population decline. What was causing it?

“In real estate it’s location, location, location and for Monarchs and other wildlife it’s habitat, habitat, habitat”, says Taylor. “Development is consuming 6,000 acres a day, a loss of 2.2 million acres per year. The overuse of herbicides along roads and in farm fields is turning wildflower areas that used to support Monarchs, pollinators, and other wildlife into sterile grass landscapes.”

So we’re “improving” places to constantly mow that support hardly any life. And exploding use of GMO soybeans and corn, engineered to thrive when we blast on the weed-control chemicals, have further whacked into Monarch habitat.

As Monarch Watchers keep counting, the numbers of butterflies go down, down, down.
But there’s something all of us can do for Monarch life-support! Restore their milkweed partners and rebuild their wildflower habitats! In our yards, our parks, and around our schools. Along our community roadsides. Around our businesses. We can plant to replenish butterfly habitat.

This Earth Day, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay committed his City resources to plant at least 50 Monarch gardens this year, and he challenged residents and businesses to plant at last 200 more, in honor of the City’s 250th birthday.

Catherine Werner, the mayor’s Sustainability Officer, organized this initiative in less than a month! She enlisted the help of many partners: Missouri Department of Conservation, the Garden, the Zoo, and plant growers and sellers all over St. Louis, as the City’s Monarch Emergency Response Team.

The City’s Milkweeds for Monarchs flyer names nine easy to grow native plants – four kinds of milkweeds and five wildflowers that provide nectar to nourish butterflies as they bloom in spring, summer and fall. These are the kinds of plants needed through the Monarch months of migrating through our area.

Check out this stuff! Google Milkweeds for Monarchs and Monarch Watch. Dig up a big sunny circle in your lawn, and plant a bunch of native wildflowers. You’ll have less sterile (lifeless) grass to mow. And you may get to marvel, once again, at that marvelous Monarch metamorphosis.

IMPORTANT: take a child outside with you. We also need to raise human beings who love nature by learning about butterflies, plants (and All Our Nature Relations) – while they play!

Enjoy. Repeat. Persist. DO IT!

Jean Ponzi’s yard is blooming with a brand new no-more-mow whopping big butterfly garden! Join her Eco-Logical radio conversations Mondays, 7-8 p.m., on “Earthworms” on FM-88 KDHX, or get podcasts at kdhx.org/ondemand.