In the life of a monarch butterfly, consider Indiana a rest stop along an epic journey.
Every year, monarch butterflies travel more than 2,500 miles along their migration. The insects fly from the small mountainous cluster of oyamel fir forests in central Mexico, coming north across the entire width of the U.S. to reach their summer breeding ground in eastern Canada.
“This creature is just the most phenomenal survivor,” said Reni Winter, owner of Winterhaven Wildflowers & Native Plant Preserve.
Multiple generations of butterflies will live and die along the route. The only way the population of monarchs can survive is to have places where adults can lay eggs, and where newborn larva can eat, pupate and emerge as a new butterfly.
Those places are becoming more and more scarce.
The situation is dire for the monarch butterfly, but people can still make a big difference. With a few simple native Indiana plants, and smart gardening, homeowners throughout Johnson County can provide waystations for monarch butterflies to thrive.
That’s the message that Winter will bring to local residents during a free seminar at this year’s Johnson County Garden Celebration.
“This specific population and the miraculous things that it does is what is in danger. That’s why conservationists are trying educate people,” Winter said.
In the gardens outside of the Trafalgar branch of the Johnson County Public Library, small signs mark the places where butterflies will find refuge this year.
This summer, stands of sky blue aster, downy wood mint and partridge pea will bloom in dazzling shades of blue, purple and yellow. The nectar produced by these and dozens of other types of wildflowers will feed monarchs.
Three different kinds of milkweed, which volunteers and area children will plant during a special butterfly event May 3, will provide the butterflies with a place to lay their eggs.
This prairie environment was created to encourage migrating monarchs to settle, lay their eggs and strengthen for their journey ahead, said Lisa Lintner, Johnson County Public Library director.
“Johnson County is a treasure of both rural and urban living, and in Trafalgar, we are celebrating the beautiful farmlands and prairies that can be seen on a drive along one of the county roads,” she said. “The landscape at our Trafalgar location invites a visitor to remain on the property and enjoy nature either before or after visiting the inside of the library.”
Monarch butterflies exist around the world, and populations of the insect are thriving in some places. But the population that exists in the eastern half of North America — cut off from the other major American population by the Rocky Mountains — is struggling.
According the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, monarch butterfly populations have fallen more than 80 percent across North America during the past 21 years. Scientists estimate only about 56.5 million monarchs remain across the continent, down from approximations of more than 1 billion in the mid-1990s.
Research released in March by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the U.S. Geological Survey revealed that the monarch butterfly has a significant risk of becoming quasi-extinct, where population numbers become so low they can’t recover, in the next two decades.
“These beautiful and once-common butterflies are growing less familiar, and we know private landowners, especially farmers, can play a crucial role in aiding their recovery,” Jane Hardisty, Natural Resources Conservation Service state conservationist in Indiana, said in a release.
To help support the monarch population, government programs have been founded, pushing for restoration of monarch habitats.
In late 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a conservation program for farmers in Indiana and nine other states. Milkweed and nectar plants are being planted along field borders, in the buffers around wetlands and in pastures throughout the state.
Cost-share funds are available to establish these monarch habitats.
“Indiana’s farmers are good stewards of the land, and this effort helps them make improvements that benefit all natural resources and wildlife, including pollinators such as the monarch,” Hardisty said.
Winter has been doing the work of providing monarch-friendly habitats on her own property since 2004.
She lives on a small 13-acre farm just southwest of Lafayette. When she moved there, she was interested in creating a wildlife habitat, and figured that she had the perfect location to do that.
She received a grant to establish a tall-grass prairie on her land and learned about native plants and their role in the ecosystem.
One of the most important native plants to thrive in Indiana’s prairies was milkweed. The perennial plant is critical to propagation of the monarch butterfly, as it is the only host plant that the monarch caterpillar will eat when it emerges, Winter said.
“With the host plant, if you plant it, they will come,” she said. “So the way to promote or create habitats for any insect is to plant the host plant, where the adult female will lay their eggs.”
What has taxed the monarch population during the past 20 years is the disappearance and clearing of milkweed stands throughout the state, and all over the U.S., Winter said.
More land is being used for construction, interstates, homes and agriculture. Herbicides kill off the milkweed, which is considered a nuisance and is often cleared out.
Monarch habitats are disappearing at the rate of 6,000 acres per day, or 2.2 million acres each year, according to Monarch Watch, a non-profit educational outreach program based at the University of Kansas. That is equivalent to the combined size of Delaware and Rhode Island.
Each November, monarch butterflies congregate in a small region north of Mexico City. The trees in the eastern Michoacan state turn orange with clusters of butterflies that cover every available branch and trunk.
“You have however many millions of acres of North American land, and all of the monarchs east of the Rockies fly to this one little spot,” Winter said. “Scientists don’t understand it, but they only go to this one spot.”
Starting in early March, the monarchs start their ascent north. Slowly but diligently, the insects cross into the U.S, facing fierce storms and unexpected cold snaps.
The butterflies will reproduce for the first time once they reach the Gulf Coast, Winter said.
“You see pictures of them, and their wings are tattered and torn,” she said. “But they’re laying their eggs now in Texas and the Gulf states.”
The next generation of monarchs will emerge and continue the journey. This second generation is the one that reaches Indiana. With milkweed emerging in central Indiana around early May, the ecosystem is primed for the influx of monarchs that arrive to reproduce again.
Eventually, the monarchs will make it to southern Canada by July. Then the journey heads in reverse. The final generation of monarchs — known as the “Methuselah generation” for its extended lifespan — will spend three months traveling from Canada to Mexico.
The entire process is fascinating, and still not fully understood by scientists, Winter said.
“The question is not only do they know how they get to that tiny range in Mexico, but how they know where to go in the spring. They haven’t learned it from their parents; their parents are long dead,” she said.
Winter has spent the past 12 years studying the lives of monarch butterflies. She travels throughout the state, speaking with schoolchildren and community groups about monarchs and establishing their own butterfly-friendly habitats.
These plots of monarch-attractive plants are known as waystations. Monarch Watch registers and tracks the locations of those, helping to form a network of citizen scientists who can band together to provide safe refuge for the butterflies.
Currently, five waystations are registered in Johnson County.
The Trafalgar library created its monarch habitat as a way to help support the local ecosystem, as well as provide an invigorating environment for patrons of the library, Lintner said.
“The design of public libraries and their landscapes are very important to communities. Libraries often are a community anchor in a neighborhood, a place where individuals and families go to be inspired, to expand their knowledge and to develop new skills. At Trafalgar, the prairie is an important aspect of the experience of visiting the library,” she said.
These plots of garden are safe places to put perennial host plants, such as milkweed, and nectar-producing plants, such as purple coneflower and scarlet sage, that will come back year after year to support butterflies.
More than 100 varieties of milkweed exist throughout the U.S., so finding the closest kind to Indiana-native is best, Winter said. But monarch butterflies will still be supported by general Midwest native plants.
“The ideal situation is to plant the milkweed and nectar plants that are native to your area,” Winter said.
Habitat requirements to be a certified monarch waystation
Size: No minimum area requirement in order to certify your habitat, but an effective waystation will be at least 100 square feet. The total area may be split among several sites at your location and there is no upper limit for the size of a habitat.
Exposure: Butterflies and butterfly plants need lots of sun, so waystations need to be located in an area that receives at least six hours of sun a day.
Drainage and Soil Type: Milkweeds and nectar plants will do best in relatively light, low-clay soils. Good drainage is needed to avoid root rot and provide good aeration of the roots.
Shelter: The plants should be relatively close together, but should not be crowded — follow the planting guides specific to each plant. Planting milkweeds and nectar plants close together contributes to this shelter for monarchs and other wildlife.
Milkweed Plants: It is best to include a number of milkweed species, and to have at least 10 plants, made up of two or more species. Milkweeds of different species mature and flower at different times during the season, so the more species in your habitat, the more monarchs will use your property for a longer period.
Nectar Plants: Monarchs, other butterflies and numerous pollinators need nectar. A monarch waystation should contain at least four annual, biennial, or perennial plants that provide nectar for butterflies.
Management: You should have a plan to sustain your waystation, such as mulching, thinning, fertilizing, amending the soil, removing dead stalks, watering and removing invasive plant species, and incorporating additional features.
More information: monarchwatch.org/waystations
- Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
- Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
- Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
General nectar plants
- Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella)
- Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
- Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum)
- Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea)
- Tithonia Torch, Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia)
- Zinnia, Dahlia Mix (Zinnia elegans)
— Information from Monarch Watch