In the past year alone, monarch butterfly populations have dropped by 26%. The decline of this charismatic species is of the utmost concern, as monarch butterflies are pollinators that play a vital role in ecosystems all over North America.
One of the reasons for this drastic decrease in the number of monarch butterflies is the disappearance of the milkweed plant.
What is milkweed?
There are over 100 native species of milkweed plants found throughout North America. These various types of milkweed are able to flourish and thrive in a variety of environments. Milkweed is essential for the survival of the monarch butterfly, as monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on the leaves of the milkweed plant. Once the egg hatches, the monarch caterpillar first consumes its eggshell before beginning to eat the leaves of the milkweed. These leaves are the sole food source for the caterpillar, and supply it with the energy to form a chrysalis and turn into a butterfly.
Another important function of the milkweed leaf is that it contains toxic chemicals which make the monarch caterpillar bitter tasting, or even poisonous, to predators. This defense mechanism quickly teaches predators to avoid monarchs, and is another example of the significance of the milkweed plant in the life cycle of the monarch butterfly.
Currently, however, milkweed is disappearing due to the use of toxic pesticides, along with large-scale deforestation along the butterfly’s migratory route.
How to protect monarch butterflies
Planting milkweed creates butterfly stops for the monarch to use as it completes its annual migration, as well as helps create green spaces which Restore Our Earth. Each year, it takes three to four generations of monarchs to complete this migration from southwestern Mexico to Canada and northern parts of the United States, and one generation to make the journey southward again. Milkweed plants not only provide a place for the female monarch to lay her eggs, but the plant’s flowers also supply her with the nectar and energy to continue her journey.
Over the past 10 years, awareness has increased on the disappearance of monarchs and the significance of milkweed in the life cycle of this fascinating pollinator. Many people have begun to plant milkweed in their gardens or public areas, but neglect the fact that monarch butterflies will ignore milkweed that is within 15 feet of another plant that has been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Additionally, if a milkweed plant is sprayed with pesticides after the eggs have hatched, the leaves turn toxic for the caterpillar that consumes them. When creating your butterfly stop it is crucial to remember to avoid the use of these harmful chemicals.
Parents and teachers can use the following activity to teach children of all ages about how to plant milkweed to help protect monarch butterflies.
Milkweed and monarchs activity
- Milkweed seeds
- Plantable pots
- Start by filling each pot with soil until about ¾ of an inch from the top. Scatter six to eight milkweed seeds into the pot and cover the seeds with more soil. Make sure to pick the type of milkweed that is most suitable for your area. Water lightly.
- A few days after the milkweed has sprouted, it is time to place the pots into the soil. When choosing a location, remember to place your milkweed at least 15 feet away from any plants that have been sprayed with any pesticides or herbicides. You can either plant milkweed around your school, or take them home to create a butterfly stop in your garden.
- Dig a hole the size of the pot and place it directly into the soil. If you decide to place multiple milkweed plants within the same area, space each pot around a foot apart. Pack the soil tightly around the pot, making sure that the saplings are still visible. Continue to water daily for a month.
- As your milkweed continues to grow, be on the lookout for this charismatic species of butterfly.
As with any pollinator, the disappearance of the monarch butterfly will significantly harm our environment. This beautiful species is one that must thrive for generations to come. Planting milkweed offers a simple solution to this issue, and provides an entertaining and sustainable activity for all ages to enjoy.
EARTHDAY.ORG’s Conservation and Biodiversity campaign is working to raise awareness about the accelerating rate of extinction for millions of species all over the world, such as the monarch butterfly. Planting milkweed and educating others on the significance of milkweed is a great way to help protect their populations and Restore Our Earth for Earth Day 2021.