Perennials

Monarch Butterflies Are Becoming Extinct – How Milkweed Plants Are Saving The Day

monarch butterflies

The Common Tiger, Milkweed, and Wanderer butterflies are the most recognizable and well-known species of the milkweed family. However, they are much more well known by their more common name: Monarch butterflies, or simply Monarchs. These relatively larger butterflies are essential to the environment’s health but in very specific ways.

What Are Monarch Butterflies?

Monarch butterflies are among the best pollinators and help spread pollen between plants. Along with bees, the pollination the Monarchs help with is essential for many different plants to grow and remain healthy. This is especially important in croplands or other areas of food-producing plants. Not only will the crop yield be much lower without these essential pollinators, but many crops will also only mature or produce fruits or vegetables with pollination. This is why the prevalence of Monarchs is used to measure the overall level of pollinators in an area.

Monarchs are known to have one of the most evolved migratory patterns among insects. They often fly incredible distances and can cross oceans during their migration. Finding food along the way is essential to maintaining their energy and helping increase their chances of survival during these long journeys.

The Need for Milkweed Plants

They are highly selective of their food and where the caterpillars cocoon. This has significantly contributed to their rapidly declining population, which is now at the endangered level. Monarch larvae only feed on milkweed plants and only cocoon under their leaves. As milkweed plots have been destroyed or pulled in exchange for housing or other more decorative plants, this has led to a large decrease in the availability of the specific food and shelter that Monarchs need to eat and reproduce. In some cases, this has even led to aggression between Monarch caterpillars as the food becomes scarcer.

Another reason for the decrease in milkweed and the associated decline of monarch populations is the increased prevalence of genetically modified (GM) crops. GM crops have been specifically designed to resist the effects of and allow the application of many types of herbicides, including those particularly harmful to milkweed growth.

While this may have resulted in increases in crop yields, it comes with the cost of a decrease in natural pollinators that may have more naturally helped with crop growth. Relying on butterflies and other pollinators may provide yields different from those of GM crops with herbicides. Still, these pollinators also play an essential role in the health of many other environmentally important plants.

Milkweed plants also help attract many other species of pollinators, such as bees and moths. The nectar produced by milkweeds provides a great energy source for these other pollinators, helping them pollinate many other types of plants. Several varieties of milkweeds also have different colors of bright and showy flowers that can add a touch of color to various areas in a garden or landscaping while helping the Monarch population.

However, milkweed varieties of plants are versatile enough to grow in a variety of different climates. It is also relatively easy to grow and only requires a little maintenance or care once established. Plus, it is naturally deer and pest-resistant.

If you are trying to help the Monarch population by planting milkweed, you must ensure you are planting a native milkweed variety and not confuse the plant with others with a similar appearance. Certain plants, such as some in the wort family of species, look very similar to various milkweed varieties. They can also confuse Monarch, who may lay eggs on them, thinking they are milkweeds. As worts have a poisonous toxin to Monarchs, the eggs and larvae will not survive.

Milkweeds tend to bloom in late spring and remain through the summer. As they are drought—and somewhat heat-resistant, the flowers will continue to attract Monarchs and other pollinators well through the summer while requiring less water than many other plants. Over time, Monarchs will begin to lay eggs on the milkweeds, and caterpillars will begin to grow.

Where to Find Milkweed Plants

Milkweeds are so vital to the survival of the Monarch species that the Tennessee Department Of Transportation has been working with state and local agencies to develop the “Monarch Highway” along the I-35 corridor in the middle area of the United States.

By offering free milkweed seeds in Tennessee, this program hopes to increase the number of milkweed plants grown in the area, giving vital food and shelter to the Monarchs to help them thrive again.

As a part of our community, you too can contribute to the community with the conservation of Monarch butterflies and Milkweed plants. Along with the Department of Transportation’s program, TN Nursery grows over 20,000 milkweed plants each year, spreading the growth of this vital plant and helping the Monarch population. By choosing to plant native varieties of milkweed in your area, you can make a significant difference in increasing the Monarch population.

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