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Monarch Butterflies - how to help save them - Monarch Butterfly conservation

Updated on August 11, 2016

The Monarch Butterfly described

The Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is surely one of the most beautiful and widely known butterfly species in the world. They are famous for their incredible 3,000-mile migration each year from the north of America all the way down to the southern State of California and to Mexico where they overwinter, and from where they begin the long journey back the following year.

Billions of the insects once congregated on the trees they use as roosts for the winter months. When in flight they created amazing clouds of colour around these trees but sadly their numbers have been dropping fast in recent years.

Climate Change

Habitat destruction, land management, pesticides, herbicides, and Climate Change have all taken their toll. So too have genetically-modified crops because the airborne pollen of such plants poisons ill-fated Monarch caterpillars that may eat leaves of their food-plant Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) that happens to be growing in land bordering these crops.

Monarch Butterfly female. Photo by Steve Andrews
Monarch Butterfly female. Photo by Steve Andrews

200 Species Extinct Daily

With 200 species of the planet’s flora and fauna becoming extinct daily it would be a beyond words tragedy if one day the Monarch Butterfly is to join them. Fortunately there are many people who want to help this magnificent insect survive. A growing number are doing what they can to help Monarch conservation.

People are waking up to the sad fact that our wildlife is disappearing at a truly alarming rate and many people rightly feel that they should do what they can to help Mother Nature's animals and plants to continue surviving.

Scarlet Milkweed

Clump of Scarlet Milkweed. Photo by Steve Andrews
Clump of Scarlet Milkweed. Photo by Steve Andrews

Milkweed

All across America nature-lovers and environmentalists are taking steps to help the Monarch Butterfly. They are growing Milkweed in their gardens and land. America has many species of Milkweed with types that can grow right up in the cooler north and Canada as well as those that are suited to the subtropical and much warmer southern States.

The Tropical Milkweed (A. curassavica), or Scarlet Milkweed or Bloodflower as it is also known, is one of the best-known and widely grown Milkweed species but it needs a warm climate. Other species such as the Common Milkweed (A. syriaca) and the Indian Paintbrush or Pleurisy Root (A. tuberosa) can be grown in cooler parts. Just search on the Internet and you will find plenty of places selling Milkweed seeds, and some suppliers have a wide range of species.

The female Monarch Butterflies do not care what type of Milkweed it is. As long as it is an Asclepias species then the caterpillars can eat it. And eat they do with ravenous appetites, often stripping plants to bare stalks.

Milkweeds are pretty flowers to grow and the adult Monarch Butterflies will feed from the flower, as will many other species of butterfly and other pollinating flying insects. They make a wonderful addition to the butterfly garden or the flower border.

Milkweed seeds are easy to germinate and the plants grow fast. After flowering they produce seed-pods that are full of the seeds that are on silky plumes of hair to carry them in the wind.

Monarch Butterfly caterpillar on Milkweed. Photo by Steve Andrews
Monarch Butterfly caterpillar on Milkweed. Photo by Steve Andrews

Monarch butterfly caterpillars

Monarch Butterfly caterpillars have black, cream and yellow stripes on their bodies which are warning colours that tell other predatory wildlife not to eat them because they have a very bad taste and will make any creature ignoring this warning very sick. The caterpillars absorb toxins from their food and accumulate them in their bodies. These poisons are carried all the way through the chrysalis phase into the adult butterflies that later emerge and complete their amazing metamorphosis. The adults too are boldly patterned with black-veined wings of a contrasting orange-red to repeat the caution that they are not good to eat.

Monarch caterpillars grow very fast and can complete their growth so that they are ready to change into the chrysalis in just a couple of weeks. The Monarch Butterfly chrysalis is a real wonder of nature in itself. It is a delicate minty green and has a line of tiny metallic gold markings too. Just before the adult butterfly is ready to hatch out the wing panels on the sides become transparent and you can plainly see the red and black folded wings showing through.

It is a wonderful experience watching a Monarch Butterfly emerge, dry its wings and finally to take its first flight. If you have helped it do so then it all becomes even more special as a personal experience that you can be proud of.

Chrysalises of the Monarch Butterfly

Monarch chrysalises. Photo by Steve Andrews
Monarch chrysalises. Photo by Steve Andrews

The solution

The solution to the Monarch Butterfly’s main needs in many parts of its range is a supply of healthy Milkweed plants that the female insects can lay their eggs on and the caterpillars will be able to eat after they hatch out.

Many online suppliers of garden seeds sell seeds of various species of Milkweed and there are actually many sites set just focused on Monarch Butterfly conservation. It is even possible in America to find places where you can get free Milkweed seeds if you supply a S.A.S.E for them to be returned to you in.

Even if you do not have a garden or own any land it is possible to grow Milkweed in pots or window boxes. Or you can try a spot of “Guerrilla gardening” by sowing the seeds into borders and waste ground around where you live.

Tenerife

I live in Tenerife in the Canary Islands where non-migratory Monarch Butterflies live. They do not need to migrate here because it is warm enough for them all year around.

However, they do suffer from a severe shortage of food-plants. You see, the Scarlet Milkweed is not native to the islands and was only brought here long ago as an ornamental garden plant. When there was enough of it growing in the Canary Islands it allowed the Monarch Butterfly to colonise new territory and they have been here ever since.

I decided to give them a hand and although I have no garden, I do have a balcony for my rented apartment. I have many times grown Milkweed in pots out there and have managed to see as many as 50 adult butterflies emerge and fly away in one week.

Because the large caterpillars will wander away if they have stripped the plant they are on I devised a method of making sure they cannot do this and then die of starvation. I put the caterpillars in large empty plastic water bottles and put their food in these.

I make a cut halfway down the container for access and tape this together again with adhesive tape. After the caterpillars are fully grown they climb up the sides, spin some silk, hang upside down from it and pupate. When they are ready to emerge in a couple of weeks I simply open the container by tearing back the tape. I carefully move the adult butterflies out onto plants out on the balcony and watch them fly away when their wings have finished drying.

It is a very rewarding experience watching these butterflies emerge from their chrysalises and to take flight knowing you helped them to do so. So my advice is to get some Milkweed seeds and start your own Monarch Butterfly conservation programme.

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    • Green Bard profile image
      Author

      Steve Andrews 2 years ago from Tenerife

      Thank you for supporting the Monarchs too.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 3 years ago from Florida

      This Hub is a related to the Hub I just published on how we can help to save the Monarchs. I plant Milkweed for them to lay their eggs and to feed on. I hope more people will do the same.

      Great Hub, voted up, etc.etc.

    • Green Bard profile image
      Author

      Steve Andrews 5 years ago from Tenerife

      Thank you for your comments, bridalletter and jennzie! bridalletter, that is wonderful news that you are helping the butterflies! Please see my most recent hub here too which is on this subject!

    • jennzie profile image

      jennzie 5 years ago from Lower Bucks County, PA

      Great information about how to help the Monarch Butterfly. I didn't realize that they were in danger.

      Voted up!

    • bridalletter profile image

      Brenda Kyle 5 years ago from Blue Springs, Missouri, USA

      Thank you for sharing all the insight on the monarchs. That is exactly what I wanted to do after I did the live butterfly release. I am so glad you did a wonderful job. I have many milkweed seeds and planting them now every year. One catipillar can eat through 5 of the plants in one day! Lovely pictures too.

    • Green Bard profile image
      Author

      Steve Andrews 5 years ago from Tenerife

      That is wonderful news that you have so much of it! It doesn't matter what type of Milkweed it is just as long as it's Milkweed! Thank you for commenting and voting up!

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 5 years ago from America

      We have a huge milkweed field and we had monarch butterflies all over. I found their eggs and few of the caterpillars but I can't find chrysalises. Maybe it is to early. Interesting hub the way you help the monarch. I don't have scarlet milkweed our milkweed in common milkwee but oh it smells so good. Voted up.

    • Green Bard profile image
      Author

      Steve Andrews 5 years ago from Tenerife

      Thank you, Nell! Thank you too, QudsiaP1!

    • QudsiaP1 profile image

      QudsiaP1 5 years ago

      I had no idea they were getting extinct and so much at risk! Thank you for sharing.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

      Wow! they are so beautiful, I love the way that you are helping them by planting milkweed on your balcony, and what a great idea to help them grow with the bottles! I have been to Tenerife, and it's a beautiful country, wonderful hub! voted up and shared! nell

    • Green Bard profile image
      Author

      Steve Andrews 5 years ago from Tenerife

      Thanks for posting! I am glad you found this interesting.

    • Vitallani profile image

      Bryony Harrison 5 years ago from UK

      I enjoyed reading about their caterpillar form; I didn't know what they looked like before turning into butterflies.

    • Green Bard profile image
      Author

      Steve Andrews 5 years ago from Tenerife

      Thanks for posting! The accepted figure is that 150-200 species are going daily which is incredible! I mean, just think how many that is in a week, in a month, in a year! Please see this report: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/aug/16/...

    • profile image

      minababe 5 years ago

      OMG, this is so sad. I can't imagine a world without the Monarch butterfly or the countless other creatures that are currently endangered. :-(