The Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is surely one of the most beautiful and widely known butterfly species in the world.
They are famous for their incredible 3,000-mile migration each year from the north of America, all the way down to the southern State of California and to Mexico where they overwinter, and from where they begin the long journey back the following year.
Billions of the insects once congregated on the trees they use as roosts for the winter months. When in flight, they created amazing clouds of color around these trees but sadly, their numbers have been dropping fast in recent years.
Habitat destruction, land management, pesticides, herbicides, and climate change have all taken their toll.
So too have genetically-modified crops because the airborne pollen of such plants, poisons ill-fated Monarch caterpillars that may eat leaves of their food-plant Milkweed (Asclepias spp.), which happens to be growing in land bordering these crops.
200 Species Extinct Daily
With 200 species of the planet’s flora and fauna becoming extinct daily, it would be a beyond words tragedy if one day the Monarch Butterfly is to join them.
Fortunately there are many people who want to help this magnificent insect survive. A growing number are doing what they can to help Monarch conservation.
People are waking up to the sad fact that our wildlife is disappearing at a truly alarming rate, and many people rightly feel that they should do what they can to help Mother Nature’s animals and plants to continue surviving.
All across America, nature-lovers and environmentalists are taking steps to help the Monarch Butterfly. They are growing Milkweed in their gardens and land.
America has many species of Milkweed with types that can grow right up in the cooler north and Canada, as well as those that are suited to the subtropical and much warmer southern States.
The Tropical Milkweed (A. curassavica), or Scarlet Milkweed or Bloodflower as it is also known, is one of the best-known and widely grown Milkweed species but it needs a warm climate.
Other species such as the Common Milkweed (A. syriaca) and the Indian Paintbrush or Pleurisy Root (A. tuberosa) can be grown in cooler parts. Just search on the Internet and you will find plenty of places selling Milkweed seeds, and some suppliers have a wide range of species.
The female Monarch Butterflies do not care what type of Milkweed it is. As long as it is an Asclepias species then the caterpillars can eat it. And eat they do with ravenous appetites, often stripping plants to bare stalks.
Milkweeds are pretty flowers to grow and the adult Monarch Butterflies will feed from the flower, as will many other species of butterfly and other pollinating flying insects. They make a wonderful addition to the butterfly garden or the flower border.
Milkweed seeds are easy to germinate and the plants grow fast. After flowering, they produce seed-pods that are full of the seeds that are on silky plumes of hair to carry them in the wind.
Monarch Butterfly caterpillars have black, cream, and yellow stripes on their bodies which are warning colors that tell other predatory wildlife not to eat them, because they have a very bad taste and will make any creature ignoring this warning very sick.
The caterpillars absorb toxins from their food and accumulate them in their bodies. These poisons are carried all the way through the chrysalis phase into the adult butterflies that later emerge and complete their amazing metamorphosis.
The adults too are boldly patterned with black-veined wings of a contrasting orange-red to repeat the caution that they are not good to eat.
Monarch caterpillars grow very fast and can complete their growth so that they are ready to change into the chrysalis in just a couple of weeks. The Monarch Butterfly chrysalis is a real wonder of nature in itself.
It is a delicate minty green and has a line of tiny metallic gold markings too. Just before the adult butterfly is ready to hatch out, the wing panels on the sides become transparent and you can plainly see the red and black folded wings showing through.
It is a wonderful experience watching a Monarch Butterfly emerge, dry its wings and finally to take its first flight. If you have helped it do so, then it all becomes even more special as a personal experience that you can be proud of.
The solution to the Monarch Butterfly’s main needs, in many parts of its range is a supply of healthy Milkweed plants that the female insects can lay their eggs on, and the caterpillars will be able to eat after they hatch out.
Many online suppliers of garden seeds sell seeds of various species of Milkweed, and there are actually many sites set just focused on Monarch Butterfly conservation.
It is even possible in America to find places where you can get free Milkweed seeds if you supply an S.A.S.E for them to be returned to you in.
Even if you do not have a garden or own any land, it is possible to grow Milkweed in pots or window boxes. Or you can try a spot of “Guerilla gardening” by sowing the seeds into borders and waste ground around where you live.
I would sometimes stay with my younger brother in Tenerife in the Canary Islands where non-migratory Monarch Butterflies live. They do not need to migrate here because it is warm enough for them all year around.
However, they do suffer from a severe shortage of food-plants. You see, the Scarlet Milkweed is not native to the islands, and was only brought here long ago as an ornamental garden plant.
When there was enough of it growing in the Canary Islands, it allowed the Monarch Butterfly to colonize new territory and they have been here ever since.
We decided to give them a hand and although my brother has no garden, he does have a balcony for his rented apartment. He has many times grown Milkweed in pots out there, and has managed to see as many as 50 adult butterflies emerge and fly away in one week.
Because the large caterpillars will wander away if they have stripped the plant they are on, we devised a method of making sure they cannot do this and then die of starvation. I put the caterpillars in large empty plastic water bottles and put their food in these.
We make a cut halfway down the container for access and tape this together again with adhesive tape. After the caterpillars are fully grown, they climb up the sides, spin some silk, hang upside down from it and pupate.
When they are ready to emerge in a couple of weeks, we simply open the container by tearing back the tape. We carefully move the adult butterflies out onto plants out on the balcony, and watch them fly away when their wings have finished drying.
It is a very rewarding experience watching these butterflies emerge from their chrysalises and to take flight knowing you helped them to do so. So my advice is to get some Milkweed seeds and start your own Monarch Butterfly conservation program.