Concerning Monarchs

Concerning Monarchs

Native Plants Unlimited is often where people source plants for their monarch butterfly and native pollinator way stations. Customers seek our opinion; there is a lot of conflicting information. Online articles can be full of feel-good "wish-conservation" that is the opposite of helpful to monarchs and other butterflies.

We wanted to address some of these issues and let you know where we currently stand on them. Of course, we’re loud and proud advocates for *wildtype* native plants. But whether you get them from us, another sale, seed collection events at parks, or sharing by with friends, we mostly just want you to get them! The caveats: be careful that your plants are raised without pesticides as best as can be managed, and that they’re wildtype natives. Unfortunately, sharing can lead to innocent exchange of misidentified non-native lookalikes- it’s happened to us too.

What is best practice for aiding monarchs and incidentally other native species as well? Here are some aspects to consider, along with our recommendations.

Non-native Nectar Sources

We’ve talked to folks (not usually customers) that insist their non-native butterfly and hummingbird attractor plants:

  • do not reproduce in the wild,
  • are adored by butterflies and hummingbirds and other pollinators,
  • other politicized opinions that we won’t dignify here.

It’s easy to believe that, when a butterfly comes to an Asian butterfly bush, it knows what it needs and is actually getting good nutrition from the plant. Its probably getting something. But consider- butterflies are attracted to color. In a nectar desert, they’re forced to take what they can get. There are so many other plants that do it better, that evolved in concert with our monarchs, that we’re certain provide proper nutrients and have a flower with a suitable physical structure. Monarch plantings should fulfill multiple ecological functions, like hosting caterpillars (aka baby bird food), and providing native habitat, as well as being a nectar (and pollen) source. Some native plants even provide specific habitat for amphibians, and non-pollinator insects.  For more discussion on this topic, see: “Why You Should Insist on Wildtype Native Plants"

The best news? Native plants are incredibly beautiful, and are adapted to grow here! No more brown thumb ;)

Non-native Milkweed As Larval Host Plants

When news about monarch decline became front page news, people wanted to help, but often couldn’t find native milkweeds. That is no longer the case. Several large online retailers exist that sell exclusively wildtype seeds and plants, so no matter where you live, you have access to native milkweed. Learn more about why we do not support the use of Tropical milkweed.
The TL;DR? Just say NO to nonnative species, even if they are milkweeds!

Non-native Predators

Invasive species aren’t limited to plants. The Chinese and European mantids, Tenodera sinensis and Mantis religiosa respectively, have enormous impacts on native insects, and even hunt larger prey like hummingbirds, small reptiles, and mammals. The egg cases (ootheca) of these species can be targeted in winter when they are easier to spot. [more information on why we recommend eliminating them from your native plantings]

However, there is a native mantis, Stagmomantis carolina, (pictured) that you’ll want to encourage. They are a necessary, beneficial predator that is sustainable in our ecology.

See how to identify native vs. Chinese mantis HERE. 

Habitat Loss

Indiana is now and will continue to be one of the fastest developing areas of the world in coming decades. It’s vital we make room for native plants and keep invasive species from dominating untended areas.  Encourage everyone you know to return some amount of the land they manage to growing native plants- trees, shrubs, vines and herbaceous plants.

Habitat can be lost in other ways, too. In recent decades fence/hedge rows have been eliminated which has been disastrous to insect populations. Don’t mow edge habitats and marginal spaces like low spots and slopes! Plant native trees and shrubs, establish prairie strips and discontinue use of pesticides. This includes fogging for mosquitos and “Weed-n-Feed” lawn treatments that include grub control (read that fine print on the ingredient list!)

All spaces are important, whether residential yard, farm, park, roadside, commercial beds/lawn,  or urban patio/balcony/common areas!  Signs are available from conservation organizations that help explain to visitors and neighbors what you’re up to. 

Captive Rearing Monarch Caterpillars: Yes or No?

Planting milkweed does not mean it is our duty to captive rear caterpillars of any sort! There is evidence that the benefits of captive rearing do not outweigh the risks *for most people*. In talking with customers last year, we want to emphasize that raising caterpillars isn’t the simple task the internet makes it out to be. Captive rearing requires a huge investment of time and effort, and even then accidents happen. Challenges include but aren’t limited to: sanitizing everything, including food, against the protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE), finding ways to ensure they have the benefit of outdoor stimuli in order to develop properly, keeping them in separate enclosures, and so forth. Read about the pitfalls of captive rearing caterpillars here. It goes without saying that ordering eggs and caterpillars to raise is detrimental at every level. Concerns include: lack of genetic diversity, parasites, sensory deprivation, stunted development, and more.

Just because a monarch is successfully released doesn’t necessarily mean it reproduces or migrates successfully. What makes us feel good may not actually be good for them. Planting milkweed doesn’t make us responsible for raising the caterpillars. From home to the classroom, we need to take ourselves outside, not try to bring caterpillars inside. Make their haven outdoors! Our recommendation is to keep monarchs wild, and free.

What Should You Do Instead of Captive Rearing?

Region appropriate native plants are the answer. Two critical points: Plantings should be DENSE and DIVERSE!  Allow plantings to fill in. The more dense the planting, the more cover eggs and caterpillars have from mantids, birds, and other predators. The more diverse the planting, the richer the all-season buffet you provide, the more butterflies! Evidence suggests that monarchs are more likely to visit and lay more eggs in diverse plantings! Dedicate as much space as you can to native plants. You don’t have to do this all at once; starting small and learning year by year wins the race. Enabling monarchs and other pollinators to just do their thing will reward you beyond your expectations! 

One last note: Be Patient. In Indiana, we often don't see monarchs until mid-August! Mexico is a long haul, and the monarchs we see are the descendants of  individuals that left Indiana last summer/fall. That means when you see a monarch here, you know that its grandparent or great grandparent left here last fall, overwintered in Mexico, and began the generational journey north in spring. Indiana has a wide range of longitude; so, depending on the weather, our region can host the second, third and/or fourth generations. You'll see most of them mid-August through early October.  Patience. 

Thank you all for caring and planting native!