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Help feed, provide habitat for migrating monarch butterflies

Dig In video series: How you can feed, provide habitat for migrating monarchs

Monarch butterflies migrate to warmer climes in the fall. You can help them survive and thrive by growing lots of nectar-rich plants in your yard, as well as milkweed - the only plant monarch caterpillars eat. In this 19th installment of the State
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Monarch butterflies migrate to warmer climes in the fall. You can help them survive and thrive by growing lots of nectar-rich plants in your yard, as well as milkweed - the only plant monarch caterpillars eat. In this 19th installment of the State

We shot this week’s Dig In gardening video before we knew the (Twin Falls) Times-News was working on a story about researchers’ study on the migration of Idaho monarch butterflies.

The timing was perfect.

Virginia Hutchins’ story “Monarch tagging seeks to unravel Idaho migration secrets” explains that the flyways for this butterfly have been mapped for other parts of the country but not Idaho.

“Idaho and Nevada are kind of an unknown,” wildlife biologist Ross Winton told the Times-News. That’s why Idaho Department of Fish and Game is going to help out on a Wisconsin State University study of Pacific Northwest flyways.

I’m no butterfly expert. Until this week, I’m not sure that I even knew monarchs migrate thousands of miles each fall from from Northern U.S. states and Canada to Mexico and California, or that they lay their eggs on milkweed because that’s the only thing that monarch caterpillars eat (a marvelous, if limiting, adaptation since birds find milkweed unpalatable).

I’ve learned about the monarch life cycle and its plight – in jeopardy due to habitat loss – from Advanced Master Gardener Debbie Courson Smith, who not only chases butteflies but has also participated in tagging for research.

“The butterflies that overwinter in Mexico have declined by up to 90 percent and there is a petition to list monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act,” Debbie wrote in an article last year about a $170,000 federal grant to fund research in Idaho and Washington.

She was among the 40 volunteers who participated in a training by Idaho Fish and Game officials last summer. They were educated on how to find milkweed patches, monitor them for monarch breeding, tag them and test for parasitic infections.

HELP FEED THE MONARCHS

In this week’s Dig In video, Debbie shows off some of the monarch butterflies that she obtained from the “Butterfly Adventures” exhibit at the Western Idaho Fair. She also talks about some of the plants they find most attractive for snacking.

One of the plants she recommends is the Tithonia rotundifolia, or Mexican sunflower. An annual that she grows from seed, it’s a large bushy plant (grows up to 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide) with bright orange flowers. It’s drought-tolerant, so definitely something for those of you interested in xeriscaping to consider.

A perennial that monarchs are drawn to is the fast-growing Buddleia, or butterfly bush, a dense and fragrant plant that can grow over 10 feet tall in a single season. Look for dwarf versions if you don’t want a bush that big. The plants have cone-shaped flowers, often purple but other colors are available. A word of caution: Butterfly bush is easy to grow but can become invasive (experts recommend removing flowers before they go to seed to prevent spreading).

A third plant that Debbie recommends is Sedum “Autumn Joy.” It blooms in late summer and through the fall, providing rich color from August to November (colors start pink and turn bronze). It grows up to 2 to 3 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide. Thrives in hot, dry spots.

Also, consider growing milkweed.

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller

Caring for monarchs

Keep adult butterflies in cages large enough that they can spread their wings and fly. Feeders can be made out of a number of different things, including thin sponges. Place nectar-soaked sponge on the screen top of cage, or find some way to elevate nectar to near the top of the cage. Sugar water is not recommended for monarchs but these are:

1. Gatorade (but not red because it stains). Change every four to five days.

2. Juicy Juice. Change every two to three days.

3. Fresh cut fruits such as watermelons, cantaloupes, and grapes. Change every other day.

4. Honey water – 1 part honey and 9 parts water. Change every day.

Source: MonarchWatch.org

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