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Monarch Butterflies Are Endangered. Here’s How Chicagoans Can Help

You can help out migratory monarchs by planting milkweed and nectar sources in your garden. Here's how to get started.

The monarch butterfly is endangered, but there are simple ways Chicagoans can help out from home.
Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
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CHICAGO — The migratory monarch butterfly has been listed as an endangered species — but there are simple ways Chicagoans can help from home.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature added monarch butterflies to its endangered list last week. The population has shrunk 22-72 percent over the past decade, experts said.

The endangered status is specifically for the migratory populations that journey across North America, said Doug Taron, the chief curator of Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and director of the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network.

There’s an easy way Chicagoans can help: with a home garden.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A monarch digs into a nectary snack at the Dunning-Read Conservation Area in Dunning on July 22, 2021.

Severe weather brought on by climate change, plus drought and wildfires stymies the growth of milkweed — which female monarchs lay their eggs on, and which is the only plant monarch caterpillars can eat — or forces monarchs to migrate before milkweed is readily available, according to the conservation union and Taron.

“One of the great things about monarchs is you can help out around your own home by planting milkweed,” Taron said. “Planting nectar sources for adult monarchs, too.”

Here’s advice on how to do that, courtesy of Abigail Derby Lewis, conservation tools program director at the Field Museum.

Growing A Pollinator-Friendly Garden

  1. Visit a local nursery to pick up milkweed and other native plants, such as coneflowers and black-eyed Susans.
  2. For beginners, Lewis recommends buying plants as opposed to seeds — they’re more established and have a higher chance of survival.
  3. Start small. Pick up just a few plants to start, then gradually grow them in pots or a garden, Lewis said.
  4. The best time to start your garden is in the fall or spring.
  5. Native plants are low-maintenance and usually don’t need to be watered or fertilized unless they’re planted in the middle of the summer, when it’s hot and dry outside, Lewis said.
  6. Try to choose plants that bloom throughout the season: some in the spring, some in the summer and some in the fall.
  7. Avoid pesticides. “It really doesn’t do any pollinators, especially monarchs, any good if we plant all of this habitat but it’s coated with chemicals,” Lewis said.
  8. Don’t get discouraged if your plants don’t bloom the first year. “Below ground, their roots continue to grow and flourish,” Lewis said.
  9. Register your garden with the city, which protects your plants from being mistakenly identified as weeds and yourself from being ticketed.

Once you start your garden, you can become a community scientist for the Field Museum, Lewis said. After attending virtual training, you can monitor your milkweed garden and collect data that helps the museum learn more about how green spaces can be more beneficial to monarchs.

“It’s the gift that keeps giving,” Lewis said. “Most of the time, if you plant [milkweed and native species], monarchs will come. And you will see eggs and caterpillars and butterflies.”

Although some people also raise monarch caterpillars in their own homes, there isn’t consensus among experts on whether that’s a good thing to do, Taron said.

The Nature Museum also hosts more than 200 events annually on monarch migration and conservation, including educational workshops and Flutter into Fall, where Nature Museum biologists tag and release local monarch butterflies journeying to Mexico for the winter.

Credit: Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
Dr. Doug Taron said planting milkweed and nectar sources are the easiest ways you can help the monarch.

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