One of the most amazing mass migrations in the world is that of the monarch butterfly. It takes four generations of butterflies to complete the 2,500 mile journey every year, and they return to the same sites, sometimes even the exact same trees, each winter. The monarch butterflies you see right here in the Midwest migrate to Mexico each winter. But this astounding event and animal may be disappearing.This year has seen the lowest count of monarchs in more than a decade.
One main reason for their decline has been the loss of their summer habitat because of changing agricultural practices in the Midwest. When the monarchs are here, they rely on the native flower milkweed as the only food source for the caterpillars. But milkweed has been declining as more grasslands, rangelands and vegetable crops have been turned into corn and soybean farms. The way modern corn and soybean fields are farmed is different now. Farms used to have more “weeds” growing in them. Those weeds included milkweed. Farms also used to have buffer strips around their edges and along ditches and streams. These buffer strips were full of native flowers like milkweed, aster and goldenrod. The flowers provided habitat for butterflies, bees and birds. But with new technologies most farms in the Midwest plant their crops right up to the edge … no more flower-filled buffer strips. And the modern varieties of corn and soybeans are herbicide-tolerant. That means the fields can be sprayed multiple times with herbicides to kill all the weeds without harming the crops … no more milkweed hiding out among the crop plants. Scientists have been studying monarchs for many years, and they have data showing that the monarchs have steadily declined as the number of acres planted in herbicide-tolerant crops have steadily increased.
Other factors have contributed to the monarchs’ downward spiral. Severe weather like cold snaps and droughts. Loss of over-wintering habitat because of deforestation in Mexico. Urban and suburban development. Increased mowing and herbicide spraying on roadsides. Mosquito spraying. The list goes on. It feels overwhelming. So what can we do?
There are two programs you can check out, the Monarch Waystation program, and the Bring Back the Monarch campaign. Both programs aim to increase the planting of milkweed and the creation of pollinator-friendly habitat. Locally, our Oak Openings Region Chapter of Wild Ones is a big part of these two campaigns and their own local ones … like trying to get native milkweed seeds planted all over Northwest Ohio. If you’re on Facebook, you can “like” a campaign they started to get Milkweed Planted at the White House.
“What else can we do to improve monarch habitat? We need to change our mowing practices. Protect our roadside native vegetation. Stop spraying herbicides, and mow less frequently or not at all. Speak up and tell city officials that we do not want them to mow or spray, and pat them on the back when they listen. Ask local plant nurseries to carry milkweed and native plants that are pesticide-free. Volunteer on nature preserves and at city parks—encourage management to plant milkweed. Collect milkweed seeds. Monitor a milkweed patch.”
And! PLANT SOME MILKWEED! That is what The Olander Park System is doing. Every habitat restoration project we’ve done since 2009 has included planting milkweed. We’ve planted milkweed all over Sylvan Prairie Park and at our Herr Road property. We protect the milkweed at the Southview Oak Savanna and collect some of their seeds to plant in more areas. We’ve planted milkweed in all the native gardens, including rain gardens, at Olander Park and Sylvan Prairie Park.
Contact us and/or the local chapter of Wild Ones if you want help getting some LOCAL native milkweed seeds and advice on planting it.
*A LOT OF THE TEXT IN THIS BLOG POST WAS WRITTEN BY CANDY SARIKONDA, MONARCH WATCH SPECIALIST, AND MEMBER OF THE OAK OPENINGS REGION CHAPTER OF WILD ONES* See one of her many articles about monarchs HERE. See more of them through the Wild Ones page.