Situation Grim But Not Hopeless for Monarch Butterflies

Scientists have just released this year’s report on the number of Monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico. Those numbers, measured in the amount of land occupied by Monarch colonies, vary from year to year. The last three years, however, have all been at historic lows.


There was an increase over last winter, from 0.67 to 1.13 hectares – compared to an average of 9.2 hectares from 1994 to 2004. (A hectare is about 2.5 acres.)

Monarch Butterfly on Mexican Sunflower.
Monarch Butterfly on Mexican Sunflower.

From this we can take heart that Monarchs are not yet doomed, but we should not kid ourselves. Scientists tell us that a Monarch population this small is extremely fragile and vulnerable to extinction.

Monarch butterflies
Monarch on Swamp Milkweed.

It’s frightening to think that the Monarch migration could be wiped out through the destruction of less than three acres of Mexican forest. Hard to believe as these were such a common butterfly when I was a kid.

2014-08-01 08.57.13 Monarch butterfly

Leading scientists and conservationists have petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the Monarchs a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, triggering a process that will last a year. If they are found to be threatened, the door would be opened to government action (and also, no doubt, prolonged and bitter political battles).

Monarch on anise hyssop.
Monarch on anise hyssop.

In the meantime, North American gardeners can and should plant milkweed (Asclepias), the only genus of plants that are hosts to Monarch caterpillars. The biggest single cause of the Monarch decline has been the use of herbicides on fields of genetically modified crops. This has caused Milkweeds, once common, to virtually disappear from Midwestern farm fields.

Butterflyweed. Gorgeous and easy, needs only sun and well-drained soil. Bees love it too.

In my home state of Illinois, there are 1.4 million acres of lawn. There is no good reason why Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) shouldn’t be as common here as Marigolds on home, public, and commercial landscapes. If that were to happen, it could substantially increase the number of way stations for the Monarch migration. Of course, there are many other garden-worthy Milkweeds that could also be used.

For more information on planting Monarch habitat, see here.

Butterflyweed with Daylilies.
Butterflyweed with Daylilies.

This is not to say that agribusiness should be let off the hook. All that Illinois lawn is dwarfed by our 22 million acres of cropland, mostly corn and soybeans. Even so, the crisis is now, and we should do what we can in the present.

Red or Swamp Milkweed prefers sun and moist soil.
Red or Swamp Milkweed prefers sun and moist soil, but does ok in medium soils and a bit of shade.

The new Monarch numbers have prodded me to increase the number of Milkweeds I was planning to put in this Spring. I already have quite a few Swamp Milkweeds (Asclepias incarnata) and Butterflyweeds, as well as a couple of Purple Milkweeds (Asclepias purpureum). In April or May I’ll be putting in more Butterflyweed, and I may even try some Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), which is supposed to be short and well behaved.

Monarch Butterflies on Zinnia
These Monarchs are asking you to plant Milkweed.

Do you already have Milkweeds in your garden? If not, will you plant some this spring?

75 Comments on “Situation Grim But Not Hopeless for Monarch Butterflies”

  1. Those figures are shocking. The use of GM just so most pesticide and herbicide can be used is terrible. GM to have a plant with more vitamins or that is more tolerant of drought might be acceptable (although I am strongly against GM for any motives) but to use it just so companies like Monsanto can sell even more products (herbicides and pesticides) is unacceptable. GM is still banned in Europe although the companies are trying very hard to put pressure on the US government to try to change that. thank god I can grow most of what we eat.

  2. Gosh, I didn’t realise the figures were so low. Hopefully they will avoid extinction. We also have Monarchs here in Australia (introduced from the US in the 1800s) but they have changed ever so slightly from the original species. Like the US, our butterfly numbers are dropping, too.

  3. I have a little bit of milkweed growing and a whole lot of seeds that may grow very soon. I hope to give my gardening co-workers a milkweed plant of their own in Spring. They will thank me later when the monarchs arrive. They fly right by me along the Truckee River. Its pretty amazing but there are fewer monarchs now than ever and that is why growing milkweed is my passion!

  4. Excellent post. Thank you for it. My neighborhood association has permission from the city to put a monarch waystation/pollinator garden in our park. It is next to an elementary school, so we have teachers and the PTA on board, plus a Girl Scout troop, to get our children interested at an early age. If you have a minimum of ten milkweed plants (preferably more than one variety, just as Jason has), you can apply for certification to (About $36 total fee, as I recall). They keep track of monarch waystations and migration patterns and will send you a sign to post in your yard, community garden, wherever.

  5. Thanks for writing about this Jason–I read about this last night. Good news, but we’re far from out of the woods. All those lawns, folks–turn part of them into butterfly gardens. I’ve grown Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)for 15 years and it regularly self-seeds. Add Blazing Stars, Purple Cone Flowers, Joe Pye Weed, and Asters of all kinds to attract all kinds of butterflies.

  6. This is very worrying indeed. Particularly as we keep hearing snippets about this secret trade agreement TTIP between the US and European Union which could mean American companies have the “right” to sell GM seed, herbicides and insecticides in the EU which have so far been banned here. The thought that such beautiful creatures can be destroyed over such a short period of time is sobering, as it could so easily be one of our creatures next. Keep posting about this Jason. And if just one more person plants milkweed because of your posts, then that is an achievement.

  7. I have milkweeds in my yard, plan to plant more, as I have yet to see any eggs or larva (maybe there is a “critical mass” of plants required before a butterfly will lay eggs?). I also support the local “land trusts” and nature preserves that protect wetlands and other natural areas. Two summers ago, local monarch counts were ZERO, last year a bit better. Hopefully, the numbers will continue to improve.

  8. Valorie just beat me to the punch. It’s the first Kingsolver book that weds her imaginative writing style (á la Animal Dreams) with her environmental concerns. I planted native milkweed after reading it and it has been multiplying rapidly. This is my year to add Tithonia (your photos would seem to bear out the rumor that they love that pretty orange flower).

  9. Thanks for posting this, Jason. I was thrilled to have milkweed plant itself in my yard last year and have sown butterflyweeds as well. I will be planting more. I have been dismayed by the disappearance of Monarchs. It was only a few years ago that I found thirty or forty of them clustered on milkweed in a forest preserve, and now we struggle to see them.

  10. I just read the report this morning. We still have work to do. My reaction is similar to yours–I will be planting more Milkweed. I have one section of my garden that I plan to convert entirely to Milkweed, and I don’t know why I didn’t do it before. Just to confirm your mention of Swamp Milkweed: It grows very well in my mostly shade garden in normal garden soil. I was shocked by how well it performed in the spot I chose for it. In addition to attracting (and supporting) Monarchs, the Swamp Milkweed attracts pollinators of all types, including Giant Swallowtails and hummingbirds. Great post, Jason!

  11. Thanks for sharing the news. Planting milkweed is a great start but we really need to correct the problem: government subsidized commodity crops using herbicide. Commodities that are in over-production mode and not even used for food purposes. It is a shameful waste of money and land.

  12. Thanks so much for this post and bringing to light the dire situation for the Monarch. People have noticed the decline in numbers here in Maine as well, but few are aware of the causes. Most species of animals can survive given the proper habitat, but being poisoned as well as having your food source eliminated is very difficult to overcome. I understand the forest in which they winter is also threatened. The whole earth and its inhabitants are threatened by corporate greed. The small steps made by individuals( like yourself) really can add up and make a difference when those that can, do.

  13. I have several and I will be planting more and sharing some with my garden pals on the street…..this to me is a wake up call to much BIGGER issues that affect our environment….thank you for this post Jason…off to spread the word! Nicole

  14. Yes, I will be planting more milkweed this year! And thanks to you, Jason, I have even more seeds. I think it is encouraging that more and more people are becoming aware of the plight of the Monarch. I attended a panel discussion at our Extension Office last week about helping the pollinators and was so pleased to see the auditorium filled, not only with Master Gardeners and Master Naturalists, but with farmers and other members of the community. I hope to do a post on it soon, but one highlight that I didn’t know about is that the 2008 Farm Bill mandates planting more pollinator habitats. The government will even pay to rent acreage if a farmer plants acres of native plants for the pollinators. I don’t expect the “big” farmers to get too excited about this, but smaller farmers who might have ponds or land near timber that isn’t productive anyway could find this appealing. Instead of short, stumpy corn on this land, they could have swaths of wildflowers–wouldn’t that be wonderful?!

  15. I read this post and comments with interest Jason – it’s been an education. We occasionally get a documentary or two on TV re the Monarch Butterfly and although it seems like another world away, it does hit home when you consider there are other species at risk here at home too. I’ve read that the occasional Monarch is found here in the UK but the reckon they come from down in the Mediterranean rather than being blown of course from over the atlantic as was previously thought.
    I do hope that through effort, campaigning and education numbers can improve and of course continue to thrive there after. Wishing you and all your readers that are going to do their bit, every bit of success 🙂

  16. I’m not sure but I think roundup ready crops are only used for animal feed and fuel production, so in those fields no milkweed, but in fields where the grains are for human consumption weeds can still sneak in. Planting a few more milkweed is easy but I think eating less grain fed meat and cutting back on ethanol subsidies would have a larger effect. Now that would be the harder change!

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