I’m raising monarch butterflies. I bought an $18 mesh butterfly habitat terrarium from Amazon this summer. As of September 1st, I am hosting 10 chrysalises and 12 feeding larvae. Why am I growing monarch butterflies?
Because this insect may be headed for the Endangered Species List. Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are the only North American butterfly to make an awe-inspiring migration. They fly from their overwintering grounds in Mexico and California to as far north as Canada, some travelling nearly 3,000 miles. This large, fast-flying orange and black butterfly used to be a common sight along roadsides, fields and gardens of America. But over the last 20 years, numbers of monarchs have decreased by 80%. Pesticide use is one culprit. And roadside mowing of milkweed and other wildflowers is another. Milkweed is the critical plant in a monarch’s life cycle. Adult butterflies lay eggs on the plant and monarch caterpillars eat only milkweed leaves. Less milkweed, less monarchs.
By mid to late August in New England, the fourth generation of monarch butterflies emerges from their chysalises. These butterflies are in what as known as “reproductive diapause.” These are full grown adults but they’re not ready to reproduce. What they are ready to do is migrate. This is the migratory generation of monarchs. Their job is to fly south to the high elevation oyamel fir forests of Mexico, a trip that will take about 2 to 2 1/2 months. There they overwinter, and by mid-February will mate and begin a new generation of monarch butterflies. These popular butterflies play a key role in the ecosystem by helping to pollinate flowers and by providing a food source for creatures, such as birds, spiders, lizards, and small mammals.
So I’ve cleared a little patch of ground in my backyard and planted milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). I’ve been watching and learning about monarch butterflies for many years. I even wrote a book about them for young kids called A Butterfly Grows. And I might write another one someday about raising them.
No matter where you live you can help. Find out what milkweed and nectar plants are native to your area. In the fall, go out and collect mature milkweed seedpods. If you grow them, they will come. I’m enjoying my role as a citizen monarch butterfly scientist! I’m monitoring milkweed stands and monarchs in my little town in southern Vermont. I’m turning my neighbors and friends on to these awesome insects. The monarch butterfly is in trouble, but if we all do our part, we can help the population of this most American of butterflies!
Stephen Swinburne is an author, photographer and musician. He has written many books for children about nature, including A Butterfly Grows. To research his nonfiction topics, Steve travels the world. Learn more about his interesting life and books at www.steveswinburne.com.
Read Steve’s other A4ED blog, about endangered sea turtles, here.