photo of monarch butterfly
Monarch Butterfly

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – The state insect is facing a crisis. Each May, Illinoisans celebrate the monarch butterfly, but University of Illinois Extension Horticulture Educator Kelly Allsup says that Illinois residents should be worried.

The yearly count of monarchs decreased by 53% this past year, says Allsup. "This most recent drop may not be directly correlated to our reduced milkweed numbers; drought and other environmental factors are contributing factors; however, the decrease in the monarch population over time can be attributed to a lack of milkweed for larvae."  

Monarchs may be added to the endangered species list in December. In response, the Illinois Monarch Action Plan attempts to grow the number of milkweed plants. 

The plan addresses four sectors of land in Illinois: agriculture, urban, natural areas, and roadsides. Its goal is to plant 150 million new milkweed plants by 2038.

"Every stem will help," says Austin Omar, Illinois Farm Bureau associate director of natural resource policy and leader of the agriculture sector committee. "It is important that residents of Illinois document their monarch habitat through these programs so they can be counted.”

Initial program results show:

  • Illinois Monarch Project (IMP) Mowing Guidance, created by the Illinois Department of Transportation, has resulted in 80,000 acres of farmer-created roadside habitat.
  • The federal Farm Service Agency's CP42 program establish pollinator habitats by allowing landowners and farm operators to establish plots of diverse wildflowers and legumes vital for the longevity of pollinator species. Currently, 103,000 acres are enrolled.
  • Pheasants Forever is dedicated to the conservation of pheasants, quail, and other wildlife through habitat improvements, public awareness, education, and land management policies and programs. It currently supports 6,600 acres of pollinator habitat which also supports habitat for pheasants and quail.
  • The Field Museum in Chicago developed a series of urban habitat planning tools.

There are many ways individuals can help rebuild the monarch population, Allsup says. 

  • I-Pollinate Citizen Scientist program, a research initiative of University of Illinois, enlists citizens to collect data on monarch egg and caterpillar abundance, pollinator visitation to ornamental flowers, and state bee demographics.
  • Plant a Pollinator Pocket garden that attracts and nurtures pollinators in your own yard. 
  • Register with the Monarch Waystation to support monarch conservation. "Your efforts ensure the preservation of the species and the continuation of the spectacular monarch migration phenomenon," Allsup says.
  • Plant milkweed. A 10 square-foot garden of milkweed creates about 150 stems. Illinois Natural History Survey plant ecologists say swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is the preferred milkweed species of Monarchs, along with Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) and Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata). For optimum benefit, establish groupings of plants in full sun and eliminate pesticide use.
  • Include nectar sources throughout the entire growing season.
    • In spring: Chives, Culver’s Root, Viburnum, High bush blueberry, and Amelanchier 
    • In summer: Salvia, Coneflower, Prairie Blazing Star, and Buttonbush
    • In fall: Monarda, Aster, Goldenrod, Sedum, and Lead plant
    • Plant blooming annuals, such as Salvia, Zinnias, Cosmos, Lantana, Mexican Sunflower, and Lavender
    • Plant a ground cover of White Clover, Creeping Thyme, or Buckwheat
  • Save milkweed seed to share with others. In the fall, seed heads burst open into silky white fluff. To ensure maturity, pods should already have started to split open or easily open when squeezed and seeds should be dark in color. Once pods have been allowed to dry, the seeds can be separated by holding one end and stripping the seeds away from the white fluffy floss with your fingers. One may also place the seeds in a paper bag with a coin. Cut a hole in the bottom of the bag so the seeds fall out after a good shaking.
  • Teach children the life cycle of monarchs to develop an appreciation for nature. Dried pasta is a great representation of the stages when arranged on paper and labeled: orzo (egg), fusilli (larvae), shell (chrysalis), farfalle (adult). 

"Every stem of milkweed and nectar garden planted contributes not only to the survival of the monarchs, but also many other wildlife, pollinators, and birds," Allsup says.

SOURCE: Kelly AllsupUniversity of Illinois Extension Horticulture Educator