By Livia Raulinaitis, Conservation Research Technician
How well do you know the Monarch butterfly? Many recognize its iconic wing pattern, but few realize that this small animal is truly amazing! Over its 30-day maturation cycle, this creature will begin in an egg less than 1 mm wide, grow to a 5 cm-long caterpillar and then liquefy its body within a chrysalis before it emerges as a full-fledged butterfly. Talk about a stressful puberty! As adults, Monarchs travel up to 130 miles per day during their migration to Mexico, where they overwinter before traveling north to lay up to 300 eggs in the spring.
Monarchs have been an icon of conservation since the 1990s when their populations started to decline. Habitat fragmentation, use of pesticides and removal of milkweed from the landscape has reduced the number of successful migrations and eliminated vital breeding grounds. As a result, Monarch populations have fallen nearly 90 percent in the past 20 years.
The Dawes Arboretum is working to combat declines in Monarch populations within our region. Arboretum grounds feature an abundance of native flowering plants which provide vital nectar resources to adult butterflies. You will frequently find the Monarch host plant milkweed as you explore The Arboretum. In their caterpillar stage, Monarchs are heavily dependent on milkweed. In fact, it’s the only plant they eat!
Additionally, The Dawes Arboretum participates in a national Monarch rearing and tagging effort through the University of Kansas. Because Monarchs are subjected to a variety of environmental pressures in the wild, very few make it to adulthood. Our rearing efforts boost their chances of survival from 5 percent to 90 percent. In 2017, we successfully reared and released 178 Monarchs.
We hope that you will also help Monarch populations however you are able. The best thing you can do for these tiny creatures is plant native plants in your garden! Monarchs need plenty of food and nectar resources to bulk up for their big trip to Mexico and can only succeed in their migration if they can find nectar stop-overs on the way. There are a variety of Milkweed species, such as Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and more uncommon species such as White Milkweed (Asclepias variegata). Each of these species features a stunning flower cluster which will add vibrant color and interest to your garden. Cutting back on the use of pesticides in your garden will also help reduce butterfly mortality. Additionally, you can help spread milkweed populations by collecting milkweed pods and submitting them to the Licking County Soil and Water Conservation District (more detail on this program is available at www.lickingswcd.com/news/2017/08/31/milkweeds-for-monarchs). Please consider volunteering with our rearing and tagging program here at The Arboretum. We would love to have you join us!
To learn more, visit the Monarch Watch website at www.monarchwatch.org.