Thoughtful plantings can help monarch butterflies

HANCOCK COUNTY — This time around we’ll cover the monarch butterfly. As most of you know, this is the one that migrates every year. There are two species of this butterfly, one North American and one South American. They also are found in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and parts of Europe.

With the monarch there are generally four generations (some sources say three to five, so we’re going to split the difference). The first three generations live about four to six weeks; the fourth lives up to nine months, and these are the ones that make the trip south. Their migration generally starts in October or sooner if the weather gets cold.

Not all monarchs go to Mexico. Those that live west of the Rocky Mountains head for Pacific Grove or Pismo Beach, California, for the eucalyptus trees that grow there. They return to the same trees year after year like their counterparts that go to Mexico.

While the adult monarch will feed off of just about any nectar source, they lay their eggs on milkweed plants, one egg per leaf, and the female can lay up to 250 eggs per day. These are very tiny eggs and very hard to spot.

Once their caterpillars hatch they really go to town on the milkweed leaf. A caterpillar can consume an entire milkweed leaf in less than five minutes. The reason they eat the milkweed is because it is poisonous; the caterpillars absorb it, and it remains in the butterflies. This makes them safe from most predators, such as lizards and frogs.

Some other fun facts to share with your family and co-workers:

Monarchs do not have lungs; they breathe through tiny vents in the thorax.

Monarchs’ wings flap slower than other butterflies; during migration, however, they can fly 12 to 15 miles per hour and 50 to 100 miles per day.

If you want to tell a male from a female (and who doesn’t), look at the hind wings. If you see a big black dot in the center of each wing, you’ve got yourself a male.

However, there is a downside; their numbers are declining due to habitat loss and herbicides that kill the host plants. I can see you asking yourself, “What can I do about it?” There are several things you can do.

Develop a monarch waystation in the backyard. A waystation is a place that provides resources necessary to produce successive generations. Every bit helps. It is estimated that development consumes the habitats of monarchs (and other wildlife) at a rate of 6,000 acres per day.

Waystations need to be created to preserve milkweed and Monarch habitats. Homes, schools, businesses parks, zoos, nature centers and roadsides are all areas that can be included. In fact, this fall a small area was set aside at Beckenholdt Park and planted in milkweeds and other butterfly plants for this purpose.

If you really want to jump into doing this, you can also raise them at home or in the classroom. If at home you can start by putting in plants that provide nectar sources. This list is by no means all-inclusive. If you’re into annuals, try cosmos, marigolds and zinnias. If you prefer perennials, you can plant asters, bee balm, butterfly weed, catnip, and daisies.

If you prefer wildflowers (as I do) there’s black-eyed Susan, blazing star, dandelion, goldenrod and yarrow. At the same time we can’t forget the plants needed for the larva. Milkweeds, we know, are what the monarch want. Other plants for other butterflies include dill, fennel and parsley for the black swallowtail. If you want zebra swallowtails, plant pawpaw (but not close to your house). Willows will attract viceroys. The list goes on and on.

There are many places to gather information on monarchs. A good place to start is monarchwatch.org; here you can finds load of information on the monarch.

Joe Whitfield is a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department.