With their brilliant orange and black pattern, monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are one of the most recognizable butterfly species across North America. Their migration can cover thousands of miles and is one of the most amazing migration stories.
Like most butterflies, the monarch’s diet changes as it develops from its larval (caterpillar) to adult (butterfly) stage. While adult monarchs feed on nectar from a wide variety of flowers, including milkweed, monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed plants in the genus Asclepias. This complete dependence on milkweed makes the monarch particularly sensitive to changes in habitat.
Seriousness of the problem
The most significant risk the monarch butterfly faces is habitat loss; in North America, this means the loss of milkweed. Experts estimate that in the eastern U.S., monarch populations have declined by 90 percent in the past 20 years. The decline is so significant that monarchs are now being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
To help the monarch, West Virginia is teaming with other states to develop a habitat improvement plan that will ensure the monarch’s habitat is sustained at high enough levels to bring back monarch populations.
How to help
There are three species of native milkweed in West Virginia: common milkweed ( Asclepias syriaca), swamp milkweed ( Asclepias incarnate) and butterfly milkweed ( Asclepias tuberosa).
In some cases, these varieties are viewed as an invasive pest in the pastures of West Virginia. Control efforts are often utilized to rid fields of these plants because milkweed can be potentially toxic to livestock. If quality forage is available, then milkweed typically is not desired by livestock. Also, avoid using hay or prepared forages that contain milkweed or turning hungry livestock into fields that contain milkweed.
West Virginians can help by conserving milkweed patches on their land and planting marginal areas with milkweeds and other native flowers. Even small milkweed habitat areas scattered along the migration route are important to the conservation efforts. This will give monarch caterpillars the food sources they require and provide monarch butterflies with the nectar resources needed to fuel their trans-continental migration. As an added benefit, when you provide monarch habitats, you are also providing a habitat for other pollinators, such as honeybees and native bees.
Milkweed native to West Virginia can be purchased from native plant nurseries and seed companies in both plug and seed form. It can also be propagated at home by collecting and sowing local seeds. It is important to plant native varieties to ensure the best establishment, growth and food source for the native pollinators.
The conservation practices commonly used to benefit monarch butterflies and native pollinators include planting cover crops, planting flowering woody and herbaceous vegetation along hedgerows over critical areas and riparian buffers, and fencing livestock out of habitats to allow milkweed and native wildflowers to flourish.
The 2014 Farm Bill retained all of the conservation provisions that make pollinators and their habitat a priority for the United States Department of Agriculture. The Natural Resource Conservation Service administers many conservation programs that provide not only technical assistance, but also cost-share opportunities for landowners, to implement conservation practices. Please contact your local NRCS office to find out more about these programs.
For more information on monarch butterfly conservation and milkweeds, contact WVU Extension Specialist Sheldon Owen at 304-293-2990 or firstname.lastname@example.org.