Help Monarchs!

How can we help Monarch butterflies? Here are 10 ideas to get you started.

Monarch butterfly numbers in Mexico are seriously lower in number than they were in the early 2000′s and before.

Monarch Butterflies in Mexico Photo by Bill Berthet

Monarch Butterflies in Mexico
Photo by Bill Berthet

Monarch butterfly and wild plum blooms

Monarch butterfly drinking nectar
from wild plum blooms

Monarch Butterfly Drinking Nectar From Pentas Flowers

Monarch Butterfly Drinking Nectar
From Pentas Flowers

The fantastic news is that during the winter of 2014-2015, numbers in Mexico almost doubled. That is exciting! Although their species is not near extinction, we would all like to see their numbers climb again, to numbers more like in the 1990s.

There are many factors that have contributed to the decline in numbers. Let’s explore the many ways we can help Monarch butterfly numbers increase.

#1. In the spring, before Monarch butterflies migrate north through your area of the US, start preparing for them by planting both nectar plants and milkweed. In the fall, we should all be growing nectar plants in our yards to fuel them as they journey the long distance to Mexico.

Just as we prepare a room and meal before our guests arrive, we should prepare for the arrival of Monarch butterflies. They are on a long flight. They need food. They also need milkweed to lay eggs.

We need to plant plenty of nectar plants in time for them to be in full bloom as the migration goes through our area. In years of severe drought in Texas, Monarch numbers declined. Texas is a major fly-way for Monarch butterflies going to and coming from Mexico. (* See note about the Texas drought below.)

Milkweed is essential to them on their journey north in the spring. Their instinct is to fly north and to lay eggs. Healthy lush milkweed will multiply Monarch butterflies like a dream.

Whether you are a ‘native only’ or ‘anything goes’ gardener, there are plenty of nectar plants that you can add to your property.

Before you choose which plants to add to your property and where to plant them, consider carefully.

  1. Does your chosen species of plants bloom well when Monarch butterflies are migrating through my area of the US? A nectar plant that blooms in June will not produce nectar for Monarchs that migrate through in April.
  2. Will it grow well in your soil and climate? If you have sandy soil and the plant likes moist soil, you will need to amend your soil and provide a good bit of irrigation. Either choose another species or be prepared to make changes to your soil if the plant doesn’t like the conditions in your yard.
  3. Is it drought resistant? If rain becomes scarce, a drought resistant plant won’t need you to water it near as often, if at all. In many droughts, the city or county will limit the use of water. In those cases, plants can be watered with shower water, bath water, water from cooking, and other sources. (* see note about drought below)
  4. Is it treated with pesticides of any type? If you can only locate milkweed that has been treated with pesticides, cover it with a mesh cover, a few inches off the plant, until it has had time for the pesticides to leave the plant’s system. Systemic insecticides can last in a plant for ** 8 weeks.
  5. If you have chosen to purchase ‘certified organic’ milkweed, be aware that it may be treated with Bt. Bt is a natural organic pesticide that targets butterfly and moth caterpillars. It is deadly to them but cannot harm humans. In most cases, a thorough rinse of the plant and a wait of five to seven days is all it takes for a certified organic plant to become safe for caterpillars. If you are not sure that your certified organic milkweed has not been treated with Bt, cover it with a mesh or screen material, several inches off the plant surface, for five days.
  6. Do you have a neighbor who treats his yard with pesticides or does the county/city fog for mosquitoes? If so, plant your milkweed where runoff from your neighbor’s yard won’t wash those pesticides near your milkweed plants. Plant your milkweed where, if it is a windy day, the pesticide won’t be blown onto your plants when your neighbor treats his yard. Don’t plant milkweed near the road if your county/state fogs for mosquitoes.
  7. Move away from the idea of a butterfly ‘garden’ and turn your entire property into a butterfly ‘habitat’. A butterfly garden simply sets limits. Copy nature. Plant butterfly nectar (and host) plants all over your property.
  8. Patrol your yard for butterfly and caterpillar predators. If you see spiders on or near your milkweed, either kill them or move them to an area away from host plants. Some predators will kill other predators and may benefit caterpillars and butterflies more than harm them. When you see a predator, research to learn whether it would be best to remove it or leave it in your garden.

#2 Encourage others to plant nectar plants and milkweed.

Aquatic Milkweed is<br>Easy to Root From Cuttings

Aquatic Milkweed is Easy to Root From Cuttings

We can all share seed from our gardens, share cuttings of plants that root easily, and most importantly, share information. At homeowner association meetings, yard sales, neighborhood parties, garden club meetings, and other events, share these items. Let others know of the importance of butterfly habitat.

#3. Use fewer to no pesticides.

Many caterpillars and butterflies die from use of pesticides in our personal yards and gardens. Although we realize that there are times that pesticides are needed (we fight fire ants and wasps), careful targeting of the specific pest and the location that the pesticide is used will go a long way to protect butterflies and their caterpillars.

Remember that lawn fertilizers often have pesticides in them. As you fertilize your lawn, you are spreading pesticide. Rain and irrigation will wash those pesticides over the roots of your host plants. Your host plants will absorb those pesticides along as they draw up water. Some pesticides stay inside the plant, killing caterpillars, for eight weeks and more.

If you need to regularly use termite treatment or other pesticides around your house foundation, plant host and nectar plants further out from your house. There are many beautiful plants that you can grow by your house that butterflies will not use.

#4. Keep your yard nice and attractive.

Butterfly Garden with Native and Non-native Plants

Butterfly Garden With
Native and Non-native Plants

Sure. What does that have to do with Monarch habitat? It can have an impact on your entire neighborhood.

If your yard is messy and weedy, you will have a hard to a difficult battle when you try to convince your neighbor to stop using as much pesticide and herbicide and to plant host and nectar plants.

Invite your neighbor and his family over for a cookout in your garden. Let them see the beauty and watch butterflies interacting with your plants.

#5. Be nice to your neighbors, no matter what.

Monarch Caterpillar Eating Milkweed

Monarch Caterpillar
Eating Milkweed

But what if he is using pesticides that are killing my caterpillars? Be NICE??? Yes, be nice.

If you show your anger and become nasty to him, you have little chance of winning him over to your way of thinking. In fact, many people will increase pesticide use in response to a neighbor’s nasty attitude. Sadly, human nature causes people to seek pay-back or revenge for a perceived wrong.

Take a caterpillar and plant, in a habitat, to your neighbor. Share what you do. Let them see the magic. Give them plants. Let them see a caterpillar eat, change into a chrysalis, and emerge as an adult butterfly. You can’t push someone into being nice to butterflies. Instead, win them over.

#6. Talk to your city council, county representatives, or whoever is in charge of city landscape.

Remembering that milkweed sap is not a good thing for children, encourage your city to plant milkweed in areas where children do not play. The courthouse garden, along roads, in empty lots, beside retaining ponds, and many other pieces of city or county property can be planted with milkweed and nectar plants.

#7. Incorporate garden clubs, butterfly clubs, 4-H groups, high school and vo-tech school ag classes, college horticulture classes, agriculture groups, and ag agents.

Butterfly Presentation to a Garden Club

Butterfly Gardening Presentation
to a Garden Club

Once these groups realize that milkweed is a great plant in the proper location, they could grow milkweed to donate to the city, county, or another group that will plant them for Monarch butterflies.

When approaching agriculture agents in areas where common milkweed is a crop pest, bear in mind that to farmers, putting a meal on the table is more important that Monarch butterflies. Suggest species of milkweed that will not be aggressive in growth. If nothing else, start them with nectar plants and let the butterflies themselves do the coaxing. Once many people realize the necessity of milkweed for Monarch production in nature, they will be willing to give some space to these beauties.

#8. Realize that you will NOT be able to win over everyone.

Monarch Butterfly Drinking Sparkleberry Nectar

Monarch Butterfly
Drinking Sparkleberry Nectar

In fact, you won’t be able to win over most people. You won’t be able to win over even half of humanity. The percentage will be much lower. Remember that being rude will make enemies and lower the percentage of people who will join you in the enjoyment of being part of growing Monarch butterfly numbers to higher levels again. Be a Monarch ambassador. It’s a battle that individuals can effectively fight only with kindness and information.

As groups, more aggressive techniques may be used to make changes. You may need to change city laws. Did you know that in some cities it is not legal to grow milkweed? If you live in one of those cities, share about the decline in Monarch numbers and stick to your guns until the law is changed. Many people have accomplished this in their own cities already.

#9. Reach out even more!

Milkweed and nectar plants can be grown under power lines, along RR tracks, along highways, and by businesses and corporations. They should be planted only where pesticides and herbicides aren’t sprayed. People have worked with power companies with the result that butterfly host and nectar plants were planted under the power lines. They cannot grow trees under their lines but shorter plants could bring positive attention to these companies.

A Monarch habitat or Monarch grant donations by businesses, from small businesses to large corporations, is a great public service that could draw positive attention and garner free publicity.

#10 Don’t stop thinking. Be creative.

Never think you have done all you can. Retirement homes are another potential Monarch production landscape project.

Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, 4-H Clubs, garden clubs, butterfly clubs, church youth groups, and many more active clubs/groups could work with a retirement or nursing home to turn their gardens into butterfly-filled landscapes.



From October 1995 through May 1996, there was a severe drought in Texas ‘with more agricultural losses than any other one-year drought.” Link

This drought is immediately followed by the most drastic drop in Monarch overwintering numbers in Mexico to date. The size went from 20.97 hectares to only 5.77 hectares the following winter. The beginning of the drought started in October, not at a time when it would affect the numbers since Monarchs arrive at the overwintering sites at the end of October. It continued through May. By the time the drought became so critical that nectar would have been impossible to find, Monarchs would have already passed through Texas. Such a severe drought would have seriously depleted the availability of nectar and milkweed in the spring as Monarch butterflies migrated north to fill the eastern US and Canada.

“The drought in the Southwest was aggravated by above-normal temperatures, very low humidity, and frequently windy conditions. Temperatures averaged more than 2.0°C above normal throughout New Mexico and western Arizona during the period and 1.0°-2.0oC above normal elsewhere in the Southwest.” Link

** Yes, systemic pesticides CAN last longer in a plant but by the time the plant goes from the wholesale grower to the retail to your yard, eight weeks should be sufficient.

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