Milkweeds and Monarchs


Perhaps like you, I am more than ready for warm summer days, and that would include seeing some monarch butterflies dancing in the breeze.  But come to think of it, I don’t see nearly as many monarchs these days as what I recall seeing as a kid.  They seemed to be everywhere back then, but that is certainly not the case these days.

I was thinking about all that recently when I read the news about how the monarch wintering population in Mexico has dropped to the smallest level since they began keeping records on them back in 1993.  As you might expect, scientists are trying to determine what is causing the precipitous decline, and the lack of milkweeds appears to be a major contributing factor.

As some of you may know, the monarch butterfly is dependent on milkweeds.  The females lay their eggs only on milkweeds and then the larvae or caterpillars must feed on milkweeds before they pupate.  So the milkweed population has a big influence on the monarch population, and there aren’t as many milkweeds around these days either, compared to when many of us were kids.

So what is happening to the milkweeds?  As their name implies, they are rather weedy species, growing in a variety of habitats, but especially in disturbed areas, particularly the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).  They were abundant when I was a kid growing up in north Iowa: growing among the corn and soybeans, the margins of fields, road and railroad right-of-ways.  Farming techniques were conventional tillage and some use of herbicides.  I would guess the situation was similar here in North Dakota.

But times have changed, and with today’s widespread use of effective herbicides and herbicide-resistant crop varieties, the milkweeds don’t have a chance.  Plus we are moe effective in controlling weeds in many other areas as well.

So if you have some unused space in your garden or yard, consider planting a few milkweeds.  Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is widely available in garden centers.  I am going to try planting seeds of the common milkweed in our garden.   Milkweeds can be interesting additions to a garden, plus they might help us see a few more monarch butterflies dancing in the summer breezes in the future.

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.

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