We all recognize the iconic monarch butterfly with its majestic orange and black wings. They make an astonishing annual migration from the Rocky Mountains to California, and the eastern U.S. to Mexico, a journey that takes 6–8 generations to complete. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates a 90% decline in the monarch population since the 1990s and they are considering protecting this butterfly under the Endangered Species Act. Two factors, milkweed–a plant their lives depend on–and habitat are considered to be incredibly important to the survival of this species.
How can we help?
Luckily, we as gardeners are uniquely qualified to help the monarch and no size garden or patio is too small for this endeavor. By avoiding pesticide use and planting native milkweed (see maps) along with other nectar-rich plants in your garden, you can provide habitat and food for adult monarchs, giving the females the necessary host plant to lay their eggs on, as their caterpillars eat only milkweed.
What do I look for?
Once you have milkweed, it is easy and fun to scout for monarchs. Monarch butterflies feed on milkweed flowers and lay their ivory, pinhead-sized eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves, so caterpillars can dine on the milkweed when they hatch. As the larvae in the egg matures, you will likely see some black coloring in the egg also. It takes only about 4 to 10 days for eggs to hatch, so check regularly. The young larvae are ivory with a black head, and as they grow, they take on yellow, black, and white stripes and form black antennae.
Once hatched, caterpillars will grow rapidly, eat ravenously, and shed their skin 5 times in 10 to 14 days, after which they begin to form a green chrysalis with a shelf of gold dots circling some of the upper part of the structure. As the butterfly matures over another 10 to 14 days, the chrysalis will become progressively more transparent, revealing the butterfly's colors. All these processes may take longer in cool weather, so it pays to be patient!
Share your data!
You can be a part of scientific research from your own backyard by participating in citizen science projects in your community. A "citizen scientist" is a volunteer who helps collect data but isn't a trained scientist. But this role is still so important. There are several citizen-scientist projects that could benefit from your observations; find more information about a project in your community here. Together we can help to improve monarch habitat and the monarch population. It all starts with the simple act of sowing a seed.