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Image Credit Above: A monarch butterfly sits on a plant outdoors for the first time at Powell Gardens. It has just left its cocoon during the last day. (Annie Jennemann | Flat Earth)
Residents of Kansas City can play an important role in supporting increasingly endangered monarch butterflies as they migrate across North America each year.
The growing threat was highlighted when the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced the addition of the monarch to its Red List of Threatened Species as endangered on July 21.
Monarchs migrating through North America are expected to pass through the Kansas City area around September 10, according to Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch, an organization based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. It takes them about a month to completely cross the area.
There are two types of monarch populations in North America. Western monarchs breed west of the Rocky Mountains and winter on the California coast. Eastern monarchs breed east of the Rocky Mountains and winter in Mexico.
Overwintering involves monarchs congregating in dense clusters in trees in a semi-dormant state, according to the Monarch Watch website.
Although the IUCN has changed the risk status of the migratory monarch, this does not change the status of the species in the United States.
In December 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a statement stating that adding monarchs to the list of threatened and endangered species was “warranted but precluded by work on higher priority listing actions”. The agency said the monarchs’ status will be reviewed annually.
“Now there are still a lot of monarchs, but the population is vulnerable. The numbers aren’t as good as they were in the past,” Taylor said.
Monarch butterflies play an important role in sustainability. As pollinators, monarch butterfly migration contributes to ecosystems that support flowers and food products.
But monarchs have been in danger for some time now, with several weather-related events occurring over the past two decades that Taylor called “disturbing.”
There were events in 2002, 2004, 2010 and 2016 at sites in Mexico where monarchs migrate for the winter where up to 80% were killed, Taylor said. The reason for these events is related to climate change.
“The Pacific Ocean is warming, absorbing much of the excess energy from other greenhouse gases that are reflected, preventing air from returning to space,” Taylor said.
Then, periodically, the humidity increases during the winter months. Sometimes it comes to Peru, Colombia or Central America, Taylor said. Other years it hits central Mexico, where the monarchs are found.
Humid air rises, cools and then rains while the monarchs sleep. Then the temperatures drop below zero, killing the butterflies in large numbers.
“So we haven’t had an event like this since 2016,” Taylor said. “And hopefully we won’t get another, but it’s likely we will. The population is really vulnerable.
Severe droughts and habitat loss have also contributed to making the monarch population vulnerable.
The largest decline in the monarch population occurred in 2013, Taylor said. In 2011, a drought occurred in the southern states, and in 2012, another drought occurred in the upper Midwest, where most monarchs are produced.
The impact of the 2012 drought included “catastrophic economic losses” in the agricultural sector, according to the National Weather Service. Warm temperatures in March caused an earlier start date for the growing season, which was followed by dry weather from April to June and record heat.
Monarch populations have rebounded from record lows, Taylor said, but the question remains whether these are lasting trends.
Help the monarchs
“That one just came out…” said Eric Perrette, chief horticulturist at Powell Gardens, describing a monarch butterfly in a mesh cube inside Powell Gardens. “See how he’s so fickle?”
Perrette knows the monarch is a male because of the markings on its hind wings. Males have thinner veins and pouches, while females have thicker veins and no pouches.
When monarchs first leave their cocoons, their wings are small and their abdomens are large. The newly born monarch will sit and pump fluid from its abdomen to its wings to grow.
Perrette raises both monarchs and swallowtail butterflies at Powell Gardens. Once the monarch has finished drying in the mesh cube, it will be placed outside.
The best way to support monarchs is to plant milkweed and nectar plants and create butterfly gardens, Taylor said.
Monarchs lay eggs on milkweed. Monarchs also need other sources of nectar.
There are a variety of types of milkweed ranging from tropical milkweed to native types of milkweed.
If you are raising milkweed plants, watch out for oleander aphids – a pest attracted to milkweed. Aphids are known for their large populations and weakening milkweed plants. They can be killed by mixing 1½ tablespoons of dish soap per gallon of water and spraying the plants, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Perrette cautions against using this method if there are monarch eggs and caterpillars on the milkweed. Another way to get rid of aphids is to squeeze them with your fingers, Perrette said, if there are no caterpillars or eggs that could be injured.
To plant a butterfly garden, Perrette suggests grouping plants and flowers together in a confined space. This way, butterflies will be more likely to notice the garden.
“And then if it’s filled in, you shouldn’t have to pull weeds very often because your area is taken care of,” Perrette said.
Also, flowers are needed for every growing season in a butterfly garden. For spring, Perrette said geum is a plant for planting that is also a perennial, so it will bloom again every year. In the summer, purple coneflowers and blazing stars are some examples of perennials to plant.
Joe-pye weed plants are another perennial that’s good for filling space, Perrette said. They also come in a few different sizes. Other annuals to include in a butterfly garden can be lantanas, pentas, zinnias, or tithonia.
Perrette also noted that a yard or house isn’t necessary to support monarchs and other pollinators. You can install a potted milkweed and a potted nectar source outside your home.
“Whether you’re raising one butterfly or 10…you’re always helping out in some way,” Perrette said.
Annie Jennemann is a data journalism intern at Dow Jones. She is a graduate student at the University of Missouri.