Monarchs and Milkweed

By Justin Olson How far would you travel for your family? Every September, monarch butterflies begin their arduous journey from the North Woods of Canada and Voyageurs south to over-winter in Mexico. These tenacious insects with a wingspan of only 3 ½ to 4 inches will fly nearly 3000 miles. While the fall journey is undertaken by just a single generation of monarchs, the spring journey is much more involved. It will often take 3 to 5 generations of monarchs to reach the North Woods. Unfortunately, this difficult trip is becoming even more so, due to the loss of milkweed – their sole food source – along their migration corridor.

Monarch caterpillar by Justin Olson, National Park Service

Mature butterflies will lay eggs in the spring on available milkweed plants, then over a period of 4-5 weeks, these eggs will hatch, caterpillars will grow significantly while eating milkweed, metamorphosis will occur, and the butterfly will continue north. Pesticides have taken a toll on milkweed growth throughout this corridor. This decline of milkweed is directly correlated to the decline of monarchs, nearly 90% over the last couple decades.

Many organizations, communities, and individuals have taken it upon themselves to help stop this decline, by planting milkweed in their own lands and gardens. At Voyageurs, we have seen a resurgence of milkweed in our own Ethno-botanical Garden. In 2013, this garden, dedicated to native plants, had a few milkweed plants successfully grow. This number increased in 2014, and significantly increased this year. And with this growth in milkweed, we have been excited to see an increase in monarch caterpillars and butterflies in our garden.

Sometimes in our travels, we can all use a little bit of help. With the continuing success of native plants in the Ethno-botanical Garden, Voyageurs is doing its best to help the monarch’s annual journey.

Photo by Wayne Washam