Open Spaces

Bringing Back Monarchs

For monarch butterflies, Illinois provides a place to rest weary wings, sip nectar, and in many cases, call “home.” 

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By April Anderson

While taking a summer drive in Illinois, you encounter countless rows of corn and soybeans that have replaced the native wildflowers that once blanketed the “Prairie State.” Of the 22 million acres of prairie documented in 1820, less than 1/100 of 1 percent remain today. For monarch butterflies, Illinois provides a place to rest weary wings, sip nectar, and in many cases, call “home.” While some may try to vilify agriculture, the decline in monarch populations stems from disappearing larval food and overwintering habitat.

According to Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network founder Dr. Doug Taron, monarch trends in Illinois correlate with those in Mexico. Local breeding reaches its climax in July with emerging adults typically surviving long enough to mate (two weeks).

“A single female butterfly can lay 400-500 individual eggs—1 to 3 on the underside of milkweed leaves and sometimes flower buds within an area of tens of acres,” explains Taron. The next generation of monarchs, emerging from mid- to late-August, has a juvenile hormone which hastens them to choose migration over mating. Subsequently, this migratory generation lives eight months, travels up to 2,000 miles, and overwinters in the oyamel fir forests of central Mexico.

Seventy percent of the overwintering colonies (8 out of 14) are protected by the 56,259-hectacre Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Managed cutting is allowed in the buffer zone, but no logging is permitted in the core. Mexican governmental patrols try to reduce illegal logging, but regulation is difficult in this rugged, impoverished area. Establishing woodlots to provide firewood, building more fuel-efficient stoves to keep residents warm, and promoting the value of ecotourism, federal, state, and local agencies in Mexico are working with residents of local communities to support conservation and sustainable public use of these precious natural areas.

After they are done roosting in the mountains, monarchs begin the journey back, laying eggs on native milkweed plants near the border of Texas and Mexico. Two weeks after the next generation matures, they will mate and die, taking four generations to continue the journey to the home of their great, great, great grandparents.

“Illinois is like a superhighway up north for the monarch,” says Highway Commissioners Association of Cook County President Joseph Stanfa. Seeing a movie about monarch migration at the Museum of Science & Industry, Stanfa felt inspired to develop two programs to provide habitat for monarch butterflies in our area.

Monarch Rest Stops, a program adopted by the Highway Commission, promotes the planting of 4’ x 6’ patches of butterfly weed and other nectar sources in the right-of-way of public township roads. The Monarch Magnet Program provides seeds and instructions to individuals who would like to plant milkweed in their yards.

“Each person who plants a milkweed gives monarchs a chance, it takes less than 15 minutes, and it’s just a good feeling,” says Stanfa. “It’s something everyone can pitch in and do,” he adds, emphasizing the value of intergenerational collaboration. With roughly 71,000 lane miles (53 percent of the roads) in the State of Illinois managed by the Highway Commission, Stanfa provided a presentation to township officials outside of Cook County to encourage his peers to begin actively engaging in providing monarch habitat throughout the state and is distributing seed packets throughout Cook County.

Garden Clubs of Illinois’ (GCI) “Milkweed for Monarchs” program is the President’s Project for 2015. Partnering with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to get milkweed seed for Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) officials to use in roadside plantings, Milkweed for Monarchs is focused on planting native swamp milkweed, (Asclepias incarnata), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) where it is appropriate in the state.

A symbol of our state

At the urging of a 3rd-grade class from Decatur, the monarch butterfly became Illinois’ state insect in 1975. Back then, monarchs were as common as the milkweed that their caterpillars consumed along the edges of roadsides and farms. National “Start Seeing Monarchs Day” founder, Kim Savino, who remembers catching them with her dad, is now working to make them more prevalent for future generations to embrace. As an elementary classroom teacher in Schaumburg and Master’s degree student in the Chicago Zoological Garden’s (CZG) Advanced Inquiry Program, Savino is working with CZG interpretive program manager Andre Copeland to create corridors and waystations throughout the Midwest with the help of zoos, schools, libraries, and civic organizations.

“My goal is to educate people from Canada to Mexico, and Florida to California,” Savino said. “We have over 80 waystations—habitats for monarchs to lay eggs—in Schaumburg. Waystations can be less than 100 sq. feet and should contain multiple species of milkweed—common, swamp, whorled, Sullivant’s, along with native plants and a mix of annual and perennial flowers for nectar.”

In our own backyard

Native landscape restoration work by Citizens for Conservation (CFC), Barrington Area Conservation Trust (BACT), and Spring Creek Stewards (SCS) is helping to restore natural areas for monarchs, as well as other wildlife. Second-graders in District 220 are learning about the lifecycles of butterflies, including the monarch.

Local garden clubs, like South Barrington Garden Club, are supporting the GCI Milkweed for Monarchs program by sharing seed packets of milkweed with those who wish to welcome monarchs to their yards through South Barrington Park District and Goebbert’s. Citizens for Conservation is donating common milkweed seed to Barrington Township for roadside plantings, and Barrington Township is providing milkweed seed from the Highway Commission to residents. (See sidebar for details.)

“Like the [preservation of the] bald eagle and American bison, it takes people from all walks of life to save the monarch,” reiterates Kim Savino’s mentor Andre Copeland. “One milkweed plant, one backyard, one waystation at a time.”

How to Help Monarchs

  • Add milkweed to your garden. Milkweed is the only plant monarch caterpillars eat. “Swamp milkweed has less of a tendency to spread than common milkweed,” says Taron. “Whorled milkweed is a delicate plant caterpillars avidly love.” Barrington Township, South Barrington Park District, and Goebbert’s are offering their residents one free packet of milkweed seeds per household while supplies last.
  • Provide food for adults. “Avoid cultivars for nectar,” says Taron. “Double flowers produce no nectar at all and unusual colors, such as white cultivars and wild colors of purple coneflower, are not as good for nectar.” Consider woodland phlox, monarda, purple coneflower, rattlesnake master, Ohio spiderwort, gray-headed coneflower, ironweed, black-eyed susan, native sunflowers, boneset, vervain, and aster.
  • Think organic. Try companion planting to reduce the need for pesticides and use herbicide sparingly.
  • Learn more:

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April Anderson is a naturalist and freelance writer who can be contacted at team.nature.ed@gmail.com.