Magical Monarchs in Minnesota
Did you know that the monarch happens to be our state butterfly? It’s true! That iconic orange and black butterfly is hard to miss and easy to identify for most people. Because it is so iconic, this species helps bring awareness to issues facing many pollinator species that normally would go unnoticed by the public. It sort of like our “canary in a coal mine.”
You might have seen news clips over the years detailing the monarch population decline. The sagging numbers are, in part, due to the loss of habitat and the drop in milkweed plant species cover in their historic range. Generally, this has to do with increasing agriculture and land development. Many government and private organizations are now encouraging homeowners to plant more milkweed and other native plant species. Even small patches of native plants in the metro area act as havens for all sorts of pollinators and butterflies.
In Minnesota, these educational efforts really started gaining traction over the last five years or so. Watershed districts and many metro area cities offer cost-share grants to establish natural habitats that benefit pollinators. So how are the monarchs doing? And what have we seen in the field over the last couple of years?
Well last year, our crews were really pleased with what they were seeing on numerous restoration sites across the metro area. Large numbers of monarch caterpillars and adults, happily munching on milkweed and flying gracefully among the flowers. It seemed like the numbers were up from previous years. It really was a wonderful feeling, to frequently observe beautiful butterflies using our ecological restorations to lay eggs, hatch into caterpillars, make their chrysalis, and emerge into the world as adult butterflies. Clients were also noticing more butterflies in their restorations and loved being a part of the conservation effort.
In late January 2019, the census numbers came in for the eastern population of monarch butterflies that migrate to Mexico (and hang out in Minnesota during the summer). The news was spectacular! The estimated cover of the monarchs in Mexico was around 15 acres, which was the most substantial presence since 2007. This was an amazing 144% increase in cover from 2018! (WWF, CONANP).
Experts believe an ideal growing season, favorable weather conditions, and an increase in efforts to plant more monarch habitat all contributed to this success. However, conservationists are still urging the public to continue land management that benefits the butterflies. Certainly more work needs to be done! Visit the link here for more information on this report. (https://monarchjointventure.org/news-events/news/2018-eastern-monarch-population-numbers-increased)
So what are we seeing this year? Well, many, many observations from hundreds of sites across the metro seem to point to a robust population of monarchs. From the spring to the end of the growing season, we saw hundreds of monarch caterpillars and adults. Some milkweed plants were almost completely defoliated by the caterpillars on them. They flock to our native plantings to lay eggs and feed on nectar from the flowers. We make a point to plant at least some species of milkweed in each native planting we install or maintain, as well as flowers we know the adults use for nectar, like coneflowers or blazing star.
We even noticed higher populations of monarchs in our greenhouses. The monarchs can’t even wait for us to put the milkweed plants in the ground! Our greenhouse manager Jill gently removed dozens of caterpillars from our container plants inside, and transplanted them on milkweed species outside.
This year, our maintenance crew had the opportunity to become involved in a citizen science project to study the presence of a parasite affecting monarch butterflies. The parasite is called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE). Butterflies sometimes contract it from the milkweed they eat as caterpillars. The OE affects the monarch’s ability to emerge from its chrysalis, fly, and mate. We carefully take scale samples from the adult butterflies’ abdomen and then send samples in for testing. This research is very helpful in figuring out the challenges the vulnerable monarch population faces eachgrowing season.
So the good news is that we are seeing a lot of monarchs around this year, probably similar to or even a bit higher than what we observed in 2018. Yeah! But we are not letting our guard down. We are supporting research efforts to conserve the monarch and creating and maintaining really valuable and important habitat around the metro area. We are helping to educate our clients about the use of neonicotinoids, and the impacts of pollution and habitat destruction. Collectively, we can make a difference!
If you would like to see more monarchs on your property, ask us which milkweed species will work in your natural area. We are here to help and answer your questions. Let’s all work to keep the monarch population trending upwards through making our Minnesota landscape essential and irresistible!