Spring is finally here and that means monarch butterflies are winging their way north from their winter home in Mexico. It’s a 1,500-mile journey that will land the fluttering insects in Northern Illinois gardens by the end of May, where—if they are lucky—they will find ample milkweeds to sustain the next several generations.
Monarchs are the only butterfly species that migrates and are also among the most recognizable, thanks to those magnificent black-and-orange wings edged with a whimsical black band of white polka dots. Their caterpillars, which sport stripes of yellow, black and white, are pretty cute, too.
The species was named by Dutch settlers in North America for their Prince William of Orange, who later became king of England through his marriage with Queen Mary. They’ve been the subject of much research by scientists, who have have determined the weight of their eggs (0.46 mg) and their flight speed while migrating (12 miles per hour), and they reign as the state insect in Illinois and six other states.
Monarchs are not only beautiful and fascinating, but they’re also important to our planet. While feeding on nectar, they pollinate many types of wildflowers. Furthermore, they are an important source of food for birds, animals and other insects.
But monarchs are also endangered, with the population declining sharply to 34 million in 2013 from a record high of nearly a billion in 1996. The primary reason is loss of habitat. The monarch life cycle depends upon the availability of milkweed plants, which are the only food larva-stage monarchs will eat and, as a result, where the female butterflies lay their eggs.
Once milkweed plants could be found in almost every field, pasture or wetland, but pesticide and herbicide use along with development have taken their toll. Fortunately, many organizations and communities across the country are taking steps to replenish the milkweed supply and to provide monarchs with hospitable gardens in which to thrive.
Abigail Derby Lewis at the Field Museum’s Keller Science Action Center estimates it will take 1.8 billion milkweed plants to stem the monarch’s population decline. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will determine by next year whether to protect the monarch under the Endangered Species Act, has partnered with the Field Museum to spearhead preservation efforts in the meantime.
The museum created a pilot program in Chicago and three other metropolitan areas aimed at encouraging homeowners, businesses and municipalities to plant milkweed in even tiny urban spaces. Other groups, like the Monarch Joint Venture, provide suggestions for backyard nectar sources that will sustain adult monarchs and advice on how to reduce or eliminate pesticides.
Closer to home, the Naperville Park District, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, the DuPage Monarch Project and the Fox Valley Monarch Corridor Project create habitats aimed at boosting the monarch population and offer information to others who want to establish monarch-friendly gardens and monarch way stations, which provide everything the butterflies need to successfully complete their life cycle.
Once such garden is the 900-square-foot prairie garden at Monarch Landing, where more than 600 other plants are magnets for butterflies, honeybees and birds. The garden, which was replanted and extended in 2014, includes plenty of milkweeds to ensure that Monarch Landing attracts dozens of winged mascots throughout the summer.
While it’s uncertain what impact milkweed gardens and personal pesticide bans are having on the monarch population, it’s clear that the butterflies are beloved by gardeners who make every effort to return the species to their former abundance. Even if that means repairing a broken wing along the way.
Clearly, nothing is too good for the king of butterflies.